The western spurs of both the Derby trail and the Oaks trail continue at Santa Anita this weekend.
Derby-bound types will begin to show who really likes going a route of ground, stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GIII). Headlining the field for the Lewis is Bob Baffert trainee Mor Spirit. Not only is Mor Spirit the only horse in the field to have tried a mile and a sixteenth yet, he is also the only Grade I winner in the field.
The fillies get a one-mile test in the Las Virgenes (GII). The race features the return of Eclipse Award winner Songbird. She that award as easily as she won all four of her starts last year, and this race will be the first chance to tell if she can pick up where she left off at Keeneland.
In addition to the three-year-old preps at Santa Anita, Picks and Ponderings also previews the first Kentucky Oaks points race of the Oaklawn season, the Martha Washington Stakes.
Older horses also get the spotlight at Gulfstream, with the Donn Handicap (GI) for dirt routers and the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (GI) for those who go long on the grass. The latter race features the seven-year-old debut of Illinois-bred Arlington Million hero The Pizza Man. Paul Mazur previews both of these Grade I events from Gulfstream.
Updated February 4 to account for the scratch of LAOBAN From the Lewis.
Race 4: Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 2:00pm PST
This year marks the 78th running of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Previously the Santa Catalina Stakes, it was renamed in 2007 for Robert B. Lewis (1924-2006). A beer salesman and distributor by trade, Lewis and his wife Beverly (herself a stakes namesake at Los Alamitos) became Thoroughbred owners in 1990. Two of their horses won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes: Silver Charm in 1997, and Charismatic in 1999. Both Silver Charm and Charismatic won the Eclipse Award for Champion Three Year Old Male. They also owned four other Eclipse-winning horses: Timber Country (1994 Champion Two Year Old Male), Serena’s Song (1995 Champion Three Year Old Female), Orientate (2002 Champion Sprinter), and Folklore (2005 Champion Two Year Old Female).
The race has been restricted to three-year-olds since 1964. It has produced two Kentucky Derby winners: Ferdinand (1986) and I’ll Have Another (2012). This race was also the first stakes win for both Sham (1973), famously second behind Secretariat in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, as well as 1999 Champion Sprinter Artax (1998). Last year’s Lewis was once again a productive race. Dortmund beat Firing Line by a nose that day after a thrilling duel. Three months later, Firing Line finished second in the Kentucky Derby, with Dortmund third. The 2016 renewal features a $150,000 purse, as well as Road to the Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1) to the top four finishers.
I WILL SCORE benefits significantly after the scratch of LAOBAN. He ranks as the speed of the speed, particularly since he stretches out to a route first-time, and should carve out the early fractions. He has shown the ability to survive a contentious pace, and win even after being headed. That is always good to see in a speed horse, and particularly worth noting in a relatively inexperienced three-year-old. I WILL SCORE keeps Mike Smith in the irons, interesting since Smith had ridden DRESSED IN HERMES before, and had been named on him before he scratched from the Sham. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s charges win at 22% second off the lay, and also 21% going first time route. Being by Roman Ruler out of a dam whose only other runner (Willing to Travel) has won at two turns, I WILL SCORE should have no trouble getting the distance in the Lewis.
LET’S MEET IN RIO was a fast-closing second as the Baffert B in the Sham last out, and still has appeal here. Once again, he will be the longer-priced Baffert, thanks to MOR SPIRIT also being in the field. For an attractive price, you get a lot. As a mid-pack to closing type, LET’S MEET IN RIO will get plenty of pace to chase. I WILL SCORE ranks as the speed of the speed, but if that one gets locked up with UNCLE LINO, then he could get the fractions he needs to close into. He has not gone a mile and a sixteenth yet, but his breeding suggests he will relish the extra sixteenth of a mile. LET’S MEET IN RIO has been working well into the race, he retains the services of Kent Desormeaux (who has ridden him in his last two starts), and he is improving at the right time.
Beyond I WILL SCORE and LET’S MEET IN RIO, the race gets thorny. It became more of a question of sifting out who had the fewest red flags, instead of truly and finally limiting contenders. UNCLE LINO could get burned on the front end with I WILL SCORE there. PATH OF DAVID may prefer turf. DRESSED IN HERMES may prefer it, as well, in addition to having been a bit sick before the Sham, and losing Mike Smith to I WILL SCORE.
Among the rest, MOR SPIRIT may be chalk, but he is the best proven of the lot. Some have argued that Toews On Ice’s flop in the Smarty Jones is a black mark against MOR SPIRIT. Sure, the performance did nothing to frank the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) as a live race, but it would be more of a red flag had MOR SPIRIT ever looked like he was going to lose that race. MOR SPIRIT always seemed to have Toews On Ice’s measure that day. The fact stands that he is the only horse in this race proven at this distance. He won the Los Alamitos Futurity, and finished second behind Airoforce in a live renewal of the Kentucky Jockey Club (GI). He has back form over the Santa Anita course. Though MOR SPIRIT will be a short price, he has shown form too good to toss. Win odds will be less than attractive, but he has to be used in multi-race tickets, at least defensively.
#2 I WILL SCORE (5/2)
#1 LET’S MEET IN RIO (6/1)
#5 MOR SPIRIT (8/5)
Longshot: The longshot writer liked LAOBAN. With him scratched, and PATH OF DAVID difficult to endorse on the dirt, they are taking their toys and going home.
Race 5: Las Virgenes Stakes (GII), three-year-old fillies, one mile on the dirt, post time 2:30pm PST
The Las Virgenes has been run at a mile on the main track at Santa Anita since its inception in 1983. It was first graded in 1985, upgraded to a Grade II in 1987, and then was a Grade I from 1988 through 2015. Though the Las Virgenes has been downgraded back to a Grade II for its 2016 running, it keeps the same $300,000 purse it had last year, and also offers Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (10-4-2-1) to its top four finishers.
Its winners have gone on to see success over the year. Four Las Virgenes winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Oaks: Fran’s Valentine (1985), Goodbye Halo (1988), Lite Light (1991), and Blind Luck (2010). Several other winners have beaten males in Grade I company: Serena’s Song (1995) won the Haskell, Rags to Riches (2007) won the Belmont, and Beholder (2013) romped in the 2015 Pacific Classic. You, most famous for winning the 2002 Test Stakes (GI) in a “photo finish that doesn’t deserve a loser” over Carson Hollow, won the Las Virgenes as well.
Beholder romps in the 2013 Las Virgenes Stakes.
SONGBIRD ranks as the clear class of the field. Her two-year-old speed far surpasses anything the rest of the field has been able to put up. She is the speed of the speed in a field without any one-way speed. Even if someone else decides to try and send, most likely either JADE PRINCESS or MERIROSVO, SONGBIRD has shown the ability to get the best of a contested pace, as she did in the Del Mar Debutante (GI) last year. She has been working long and strong over the local course. She gets regular rider Mike Smith back in the irons, and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has a respectable enough win percentage off these long lays (17%, when off 90 days or more) to suggest that he should have SONGBIRD in good shape coming into here.
If SONGBIRD loses, whoever picks the winner will get paid. However, sometimes the better part of valor lies in knowing when the chalk is the goods, singling, and moving on. This looks like one of those times. Though SONGBIRD is untested, she does not stand to get her test here.
STREET FANCY rallied to win the Starlet (GI) last out, after some early trouble. She has proven herself to be a versatile sort so far. She graduated first out from a forward placement, but finished a close third in the Desi Arnaz after rallying from the clouds. STREET FANCY’s maiden win came over the Santa Anita dirt, showing she can handle the surface, and her Starlet win last out came at two turns. She has been working well leading into this race, and trainer Phil D’Amato has been striking at 22% this meet. She does lose Mike Smith, but that can hardly be taken as a strike against her, as Smith shows up on SONGBIRD. STREET FANCY does get Victor Espinoza — previously JADE PRINCESS’s rider, making the rider assignment perhaps a vote of confidence in that regard. STREET FANCY may not be SONGBIRD, but she has shown enough to make her a solid favourite to fill out the exacta.
The other “logical” horse to consider for the “second to SONGBIRD” medal here is JADE PRINCESS. She should be forwardly placed early, and does have two wins at the distance. However, it has been feast or famine with her — she has either won by daylight, or finished far up the track. For what stands to be a short price in the exacta or trifecta pools, focusing on SHE’S A WARRIOR underneath instead makes a bit more sense. SHE’S A WARRIOR remains a maiden, but she has been in the money in all three of her starts. She also took a significant step forward last out, in her first try at two turns. Though SHE’S A WARRIOR loses regular rider Mario Gutierrez to LAND OVER SEA, that raises no real red flags given how often Gutierrez rides for LAND OVER SEA’s trainer Doug O’Neill. SHE’S A WARRIOR gets a capable rider in Flavien Prat, and Prat has won two of his last four (with another in the money) for trainer Peter Eurton. SHE’S A WARRIOR has been working well, she has form over the course, and she is fast enough to contend. The value in the exotic pools lives with her.
#6 SONGBIRD (1/5)
#3 STREET FANCY (6/1)
#1 SHE’S A WARRIOR (20/1)
Longshot: We tried to contact the longshot writer, but they were already lamenting the futility of betting against the inevitable bridgejumpers in the Las Virgenes.
Photograph by Nicolle Neulist.
You can take “Picks & Ponderings” with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Race Course. And you can get “Picks and Ponderings” in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking “Create Subscription.” It’s a FREE service, and you’ll never get any unwanted spam.