Black Friday. The Day After Thanksgiving. Seems every store in the world has a sale this day, with doorbusters and campaigns and all kinds of charms to curry people to shop and spend money before Christmas. Yet for those more keen on racing action, this weekend continues to feature quality post-Breeders Cup racing. There are deals to be had, just like at the Best Buy and Target, only the deals involve toteboard prices and not mega super markdown prices.
So while you have plenty of chances at the dinner table to get first and second helpings of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes, we provide a Handicapping Feast featuring over a dozen graded stakes for the holiday weekend. This is the second course in a Thanksgiving weekend feast of handicapping, and this piece focuses on a trio of races. The first course was on Thanksgiving day, where we visited Aqueduct and Del Mar. Saturday brings us the Hawthorne Gold Cup in our backyard, the Hollywood Derby Day card out west…and Cigar Mile Day, the biggest day of the fall at Aqueduct.
For the Black Friday course, we examine the G3 Go For Wand Handicap at Aqueduct as part of their HolidayFest program. The Hollywood Turf Festival at Del Mar rolls on with the G2 Seabiscuit. The big race of the day is the G1 Clark Handicap from Churchill Downs, and that race is picked and pondered as well.
Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the piece, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist. Morning line odds for the Go For Wand Handicap and the Seabiscuit Handicap were not available at original publish time. In races carded for the turf, selections are given “turf only”. All races are scheduled to take place on Black Friday, Friday November 28th.
Edited on November 26 to add morning lines for the Go For Wand and the Seabiscuit.
Aqueduct — Race 9 — G3 Go For Wand Handicap — One Mile (One Turn) on Dirt — post time 3:48 PM ET
This race was inaugurated in 1954 as the Maskette Stakes, named after 1909 champion three-year-old filly Maskette. However, it was renamed in 1992 to honour Go For Wand, who won this race in 1990. Go For Wand, a daughter of Deputy Minister out of Obeah, was the champion two-year-old filly of 1989, after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies that year. She was also the champion three-year-old filly of 1990, on the strength of six wins at the highest level — including one in this very race, which was then a Grade I. Tragically, she broke down in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in October of 1990, while battling Bayakoa down the Belmont stretch. Currently a one-mile race at Aqueduct, it has been contested at distances ranging from seven furlongs to a mile and an eighth through its history, and at all three NYRA tracks. It has been regularly a mile at Aqueduct only since 2011. Four horses have won this race twice: Tempted (1958, 1960), Tosmah (1964, 1965), Lady’s Secret (1985, 1986) and Ginger Punch (2007, 2008). Other notable winners of the race include inaugural winner and Grade I stakes namesake Ballerina (1954), champion two-year-old and stakes-level broodmare Numbered Account (1972), two-time Fall Highweight winner What a Summer (1977), the undefeated Personal Ensign (1988), and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Azeri (2004). Though this year’s running is a Grade III event, down a notch from last year’s, it still carries the same $300,000 purse.
CLASSIC POINT has been over her head quite a few times this year: she isn’t a Grade I or even a Grade II kind of horse. However, this is quite decidedly a Grade III bunch, and she is the speed of the speed. Assuming she does not blow the start like she did three back in the Bed of Roses, she should have more early zip than the likes of SNOWBELL, SWEET WHISKEY, or stretching-out sprinter GEEKY GORGEOUS. Last out, in the restricted Punkin Pie Stakes, trainer Jimmy Jerkens tried the blinkers on her. She responded, wiring the field and winning by six and a half lengths. Today she gets the blinkers back, and anyone who wants to be anywhere near the front end early is going to have to come and get her. CLASSIC POINT stretches out to a mile here, but she does have a win at that distance before. She has been on the shelf since the Punkin Pie on October 13, but has been working well at Belmont, and runs for a a barn that wins at 19% off those sorts of lays. If CLASSIC POINT falters, or one of the others in the field freaks on the front end and makes it a fight, look to WILLET to be charging in late. This honest six-year-old routinely shows up, as her 20-8-7-3 career mark attests. She gets back Dylan Davis in the irons, who got her up for a sharp third behind Artemis Agrotera and La Verdad in the Gallant Bloom (GII) two back. She typically goes shorter, but is a respectable 4-2-1-0 career at a mile, showing she can stretch that far. Her speeds are frequently sharp compared to the field, and she has two respectable works since her last race. Finally, three-year-old PRINCESS VIOLET has shown some real versatility in her last two starts. She typically either set the early fractions or started quite close to them when she did her best work. However, in her last two, she has shown another side. Last out, in the Empire Distaff (a three-and-up New York-bred stakes), she happily settled about four lengths back down the backstretch. She easily circled the field through the turn, and drew away in hand under Jose Ortiz, who returns here. That race was a one-turn 1 1/16 miles over the Belmont track; here she cuts back to a mile, but has the same one-turn route configuration. This is, of course, a tougher field, but she has shown the ability to go just as fast as her adversaries here, and appeared to have plenty left after that stakes win last out. Finally, trainer Michael Hushion has been sharp this Aqueduct meet. Note that PRINCESS VIOLET is cross entered into Saturday’s G3 Comely against fellow three-year-old-fillies.
The one worth taking a particular swing against here is SWEET WHISKEY. She is a quality filly, but a few thing advise against her here. First of all, she is a three-year-old facing older company for the first time. Compare this to fellow three-year-old PRINCESS VIOLET, who has made four of her seven starts — including all four career wins — against older company. Though she was a distant second behind Taris in the Raven Run (GII) last out, she still ran well enough to suggest she could bounce off of the performance, which also adds to making her hard to take here.
#10 CLASSIC POINT (12/1)
#5 WILLET (4/1)
#6 PRINCESS VIOLET (9/2)
Longshot: Toss the last-out clunker from #2 ENDLESS CHATTER (6/1), and there’s a lot to like about her. Most of her speeds this year have been right in line with the field she faces today, and pacewise, her versatility is an asset. She has won on the lead, stalking fairly close, or coming from a significant distance back early. She will not be coming from the front with the likes of CLASSIC POINT (or even if it comes to that, PRINCESS VIOLET) in the field, but she should be able to stay in it from off the pace. Finally, her human connections have been very strong through the fall. Rider Irad Ortiz has the call. Ortiz is winning at 24% this Aqueduct meet, and rode ENDLESS CHATTER two starts back when she finished third in the Beldame. Her trainer, Chad Brown, is hitting at 26% through the year, and 27% through the Aqueduct meet. Together, Brown and Ortiz have won 10 of their 37 starts together over the last two months (for a +$0.75 ROI), and been on the board in a sparkling 26 of those 37 starts. — NN
Churchill Downs — Race 11 — G1 Clark Handicap — 1 1/8 Miles on Dirt — post time 5:35 PM ET
The sun rises in the east, the sun sets in the west, and the Clark Handicap will be run at Churchill Downs this year: just as it has been every year since 1875. The race is named after Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, who started the Louisville Jockey Club along with his cousins, John and Henry Churchill. (The name Meriwether Lewis Clark is no coincidence: he was a grandson of the very William Clark who went on the famous expedition with Meriwether Lewis). The Clark was originally a two-mile race restricted to three-year-olds, though it was shortened in 1881 and opened to three-year-olds and up in 1902. It has also been run at a variety of distances, as short at 1 1/16 miles, but has been at today’s nine-furlong distance for most of its history: 1896-1901, 1922-1924, and from 1955 to the present day. Though no truly local horses are racing this year, Illinois-bred Giant Oak won the 2010 edition of the Clark after Successful Dan (who crossed the wire just a head in front) was disqualified to third for bumping Reading Colliery down the stretch. Other notable winners of the Clark, among many, include 1881 Kentucky Derby winner and inaugural Hall of Fame inductee Hindoo (1881), hard-knocking war horses Old Rosebud (1917) and Exterminator (1922), 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1942), past Arlington stakes namesake Swoon’s Son (1958), and two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan (2011). This year’s edition is a Grade I affair with a $500,000 purse, the headline race of the Churchill November meet.
Though this year’s Clark Handicap lacks the star power of the Game On Dude vs. Will Take Charge showdown from last year, it does have a certain allure: specifically, that of being a contentious betting race. No matter your opinion as to whether it drew a “true” Grade I field this year or not, the fact remains that there is a relatively balanced field with a relatively balanced pace scenario — leaving is a not-entirely-frivolous argument to be made for just about anyone in this field. (For fear of pulling a Dark Horse, I just cannot concoct a reason to endorse LOOKING COOL on top.) DEPARTING is the morning line favourite, and fits the field, but has a bad propensity to hang. He looks far more attractive for undersides of exotics, and fairly unappealing on top given the likely price. Within this contentious field, HOPPERTUNITY has the most to recommend him. Though he is lightly raced given the field, he has had that all-important first crack against older company, and comes here second off the lay. He was second last out, but that was his first race in almost seven months, and at seven furlongs was likely too short for him. He stretches to nine here, a distance at which he was second to California Chrome in the spring. Since that race, he has returned to the worktab for three long, sharp works. That should imply that HOPPERTUNITY is getting back into prime racing condition: trainer Bob Baffert, who is 30% with shippers, would not be shipping this runner east if he did not expect to win. Pacewise, he should be stalking a length or two off: with as good as being inside and forwardly placed has been at Churchill this meet, this will not hurt. Finally, for figures types, his Brisnet speed figure first off the lay, fell right within what he was firing in the Rebel and the Santa Anita Derby. Second off the lay and seven months older, HOPPERTUNITY should improve: putting him right in range of what he needs to beat this group. EASTER GIFT finished third in this race last year, and looks to be coming back into form again. He was off for eight months after that, fired two clunkers in the summer, and took another two months off. He returned in an allowance at Belmont on October 12, and looked like his old self again. That day, he beat a field that included the first-off-the-lay CONSTITUTION. In that race, EASTER GIFT made a furious closing move, but that is not the only way he can run and win. He has run well from just off the pace, midpack, or farther back: useful in a race like this with no controlling speed or desperate need-the-lead types, but several runners (PROTONICO, CONSTITUTION, and KNIGHTS NATION) who show some penchant for being on the front. Finally, he should be fit and ready to run his best: trainer Chad Brown is 29% with runners who have been off 45-90 days, and Easter Gift has been working frequently and sharply leading up to this race. CONSTITUTION, another three-year-old back on the scene off of a long layoff, comes into this race second off. His first race back was the aforementioned allowance in which he was beaten by EASTER GIFT. That time out he started poorly, and was a bit hard to relax — his Tapit was showing. Still, he picked up right where he left off speedwise, and fourth beaten 1 1/2 lengths is not a bad effort for six and a half months off, and first time versus older. He has been working frequently and strongly at Belmont since that race, and gets rider Javier Castellano back. The distance should also be good for him: he stretches from 1 1/16 miles last out to 1 1/8 miles here, and won the Florida Derby in his only attempt to date at this distance. Pacewise he should be near the front. He showed in the key allowance race on the Fountain of Youth undercard in which Constitution beat Tonalist, Mexikoma, and Wicked Strong that he could get a route of ground after being pressed early, and showed in his Florida Derby win that he could rate if there were others demanding the lead.
Two runners worth taking a stand against here, particularly on top, are PROTONICO and PRAYER FOR RELIEF. PROTONICO should be forwardly placed early, and may well end up setting the early fractions. Still, he is a three-year-old facing older for the first time, and the question remains: who has he beaten? He does come in off of a graded stakes win in the Discovery (GIII) at Aqueduct on November 1. Still, say what you will about this Clark field: the horses running here are tougher than the likes of Bay of Plenty and Just Call Kenny, who he beat in the Discovery. He will have to take another step forward after a long summer and fall campaign, and that is a tall order his first time against older. PRAYER FOR RELIEF has been a fairly consistent type: he usually fires speeds that stack up well with this bunch, and he is frequently in contention against horses of this race’s caliber, and even tougher. However, he is winless in nine starts this year, and a dismal 4-0-0-0 career over the Churchill track. Use him in low rungs of trifectas and superfectas if you must, but this does not bode well for him to win the Clark.
#1 HOPPERTUNITY (7/2)
#5 EASTER GIFT (8/1)
#7 CONSTITUTION (7/2)
Longshot: #9 PICK OF THE LITTER (9/2) is one of a relatively rare breed: a dirt-loving Kitten’s Joy baby. He has had a breakout year, and won his first graded stakes last out in the Fayette (GII). In that race he chased midpack, and when DEPARTING settled in front of him along the rail passing the furlong pole, he came off and nailed DEPARTING just in time. He returns to Churchill here, a track over which he has been on the board in four of his five career starts. He gets rider Corey Lanerie back; Lanerie not only rode him in his Fayette win, but has ridden him for his best races at Churchill. (He was off the board two starts back in the Homecoming, but Julien Leparoux had the call that day.) He consistently runs fast enough to contend with this crowd, and four of his five career wins have come at this nine-furlong distance. Pacewise, he can stalk or run midpack: useful given the balanced pace scenario here. PICK OF THE LITTER should be a square price between DEPARTING and the buzz three-year-olds in the field, and he has been sharp enough this year to loom a threat. — NN
Del Mar — Race 7 — G2 Seabiscuit Handicap — 1 1/16 Miles on Turf — post time 6:30 pm ET
The Seabiscuit Handicap, the Friday feature of the relocated Hollywood Turf Festival, began its life upstate at Hollywood Park as the Citation Handicap, and has been each year as a miler’s race (moving from eight to nine furlongs) since 1977, save for 2005 when Hollywood Park scrapped its entire turf schedule. When Hollywood shuttered last December, this race came to Del Mar and gained a new name. While Citation is himself a worthy namesake (1948 Triple Crown winner, 1948 Horse of the Year, etc.), the new namesake of this race is Seabiscuit. While Seabiscuit’s rags-to-riches story has been told already in book form and adapted to film, the Del Mar connection is in his match race on August 12, 1938 with Ligorati, a colt owned by Binglin Stable, the nom-de-course of Bing Crosby and Lindsay Howard. And yes, this is the same Bing Crosby with an tentpole in the foundation of Del Mar. The Seabiscuit-Ligorati match race from Del Mar was also broadcast nationally on NBC radio, the first time a thoroughbred race had been broadcast on that medium. Notable winners include multiple G1 winner Gentlemen (1996), double winner Good Journey (2001, 2002), and Leroidesanimaux (2004), the Champion Male Turfer of 2005.
The Mike Smith/Jim Cassidy team that racked up a Delta Jackpot win with Ocho Ocho Ocho are the top choice here, with TOM’S TRIBUTE. Winner of both graded stakes for milers here at Del Mar during the summer, he’s had a nice year with only a clunker in the Kilroe and a seventh against way better foes in the Breeders’ Cup Mile the only blemishes on the 2014 resume. This won’t be a great price on the toteboard, not with the Del Mar stakes wins and a horse never out of the top two in four career attempts on the Del Mar green. He’s also not chasing around the better foreigners and out-of-towners that were in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He should get some pace to attack from the likes of BOOZER, who should be pressured by PURE TACTICS and perhaps SKYRING. KAIGUN may be a cut below the best milers around, but this a G2 that doesn’t have the best milers around. KAIGUN has been chasing the turf heavyweights, be it miler Wise Dan or long-winded Main Sequence or globetrotting Trade Storm. There were runaway leaders to reel in going too fast when he was second in the G1 Manhattan and winning the G2 Play The King, and if BOOZER or PURE TACTICS go too fast that could prove beneficial to KAIGUN. Rider switch to Corey Nakatani, one of the better on the weeds in these parts. He, like TOM’S TRIBUTE, has an excusable clunker in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and perhaps eleven panels in the United Nations was too far. LIL BIT O’ FUN goes back to turf after a headscratching try on the dirt in the Damascus Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard. He also goes back to two turns, after a third in a downhill G3 upstate at Santa Anita. Winner of the Wickerr Stakes over these weeds at a mile during the summer, he goes third off the layoff, which is a sparkling 30% wins/65% top three proposition in twenty starts this year. He also goes back to two turns, and perhaps the Damascus sets up for a distance progression. Aaron Gryder retains the mount for Phil D’ Amato, the longtime assistant turned head of the (former) Mike Mitchell shedrow.
#8 TOM’S TRIBUTE (5/2)
#6 KAIGUN (6/1)
#1 LIL BIT O’ FUN (20/1)
Longshot: Earlier in the year, Calumet Farm brought Optimizer out of the mothballs to give Wise Dan a scare at Saratoga and give him, like KAIGUN, a “second to Wise Dan in a Turf Mile” badge that seems to be all the rage on the east coast. Maybe lightning strikes again with #7 SKYRING (20/1), who wired the G2 Dixie last year and the G2 Muniz over a boggy course earlier this year. Something must have gone wrong after Derby Day when he was tenth in the G1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Been brought back with a string of works, and Calumet stable trainer Jose Fernandez has three wins and two money finishes in nine outs with horses returning after layoffs exceeding three months. There is also a nominal trainer change away from D. Wayne Lukas to Fernandez, and that’s been profitable too (25% wins, twelve outs). Getting Tyler Baze to ride seems a smart move for this forwardly placed runner. Anyone that go wire-to-wire on the pick-a-closer Fair Grounds turf has to have some sort of stay on the front, which will make him tough to pass in the late stages. –PM
All photos courtesy Nicolle Neulist.
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