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Matt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.

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Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Churchill Downs – 5/2/2014

Matt Bernier, one of the stars of Horseplayers

Matt Bernier, one of the stars of Horseplayers

by Matt Bernier of Esquire’s Horseplayers

The Grade I Kentucky Oaks will be run at Churchill Downs on Friday with post time scheduled for 5:49 ET. A field of thirteen three year old fillies are set to load into the starting gate, all vying for the garland of lilies that await the winner. The KY Oaks is contested over 9 furlongs, a distance which many of these fillies have never gone in their early careers. Friday’s weather forecast looks good (as of Tuesday night), and we should have a fast track for the 140th “Run for the Lilies.” Let’s take a look at the fillies that are scheduled to run in the Kentucky Oaks. (My personal win-odds line is listed next to each runner)

Please Explain (100-1) will be making the eighth start of her career in the Oaks, with two of those already having come over the surface at Churchill Downs. She was most recently a disappointing seventh in the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park as the 2.90-1 betting favorite, but there could be a built in excuse for her poor performance. For the most part, the track at Oaklawn was decidedly speed favoring on April 5 – which didn’t lend itself to Please Explain’s come from behind running style. Regardless of the fact that she seemed to be running against a bias that day, her Beyer Speed Figures put her nowhere near the top fillies in this race. I’d be very surprised if she took a big enough step forward to be competitive in the Kentucky Oaks. The bottom of a superfecta/possibly the bottom of a trifecta would seem to be her ceiling; if you like her, you’re going to get a huge price.

Ria Antonia (20-1) is the reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies champion, but her credentials can easily be questioned. If it wasn’t for a disqualification in the Breeders’ Cup (She’s A Tiger), Ria Antonia would still be eligible for a N2L race. I like the idea of trainer Bob Baffert putting the blinkers back on this daughter of Rockport Harbor, and she has been training nicely since arriving at Churchill Downs. That being said, I have a nagging suspicion that we’re already approaching the ceiling of Ria Antonia’s ability – and if that’s the case, she isn’t a contender in this race. On her best day she figures to be within shouting distance of the leader, but I think that’s as close as she can get against fillies of this caliber – within shouting distance.

Sugar Shock (12-1) comes into the Kentucky Oaks after putting forth a sparkling campaign over the winter at Oaklawn Park – a campaign which included three wins from four starts (she actually won all four of her starts but was disqualified for interference in the GIII Honeybee). I think trainer Doug Anderson has a nice filly on his hands, but I do have some questions about the surface at Oaklawn. It was plain as day that Sugar Shock was tiring in the Honeybee, which would explain why she was making more lane changes during the stretch-drive than drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike at rush-hour normally do. In her subsequent start in the Fantasy, both she and Kiss Moon ran 1-2 the entire 8.5 furlongs, each finishing well clear of the third place runner. My big concern is that Oaklawn had a fairly significant speed bias that day, which would have enabled Sugar Shock to carry her speed the entire way. There is little doubt that she has talent and her tactical speed is undoubtedly an asset…I’m just not sure she really wants to go 9 furlongs.

Rosalind (20-1) is coming off a thrilling victory in the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland, a race in which she dead-heated for the win along with Room Service. All indications are that she’s thriving at Churchill Downs, but the fact of the matter is she’s never won on dirt before, and I think this filly’s future is on the grass or synthetic. My biggest concern with Rosalind is the potential “bounce” factor off her race at Keeneland. Both she and Room Service were seven lengths clear of the show runner, Thank You Marylou, and the 14 point improvement on the Beyer Speed Figure scale is a rather significant jump. Maybe she’s just getting good at the right time…or maybe she’s set to regress in a major way.

Thank You Marylou (30-1) has the pedigree to stay the 9 furlong distance of the Oaks, but her lackluster effort in the Ashland last month at Keeneland has left a sour taste in my mouth. Another concern is that her only truly fast race came at Gulfstream Park – a surface that certain horses have been known to have an affinity for. If she had shown me ANYTHING in the Ashland, I’d likely have her less than 30-1…but she didn’t. On the bright side – she’s hit the board in all four of her lifetime starts, so she could round out the exotics nicely.

Perhaps I have Kiss Moon (15-1) valued too high – as I stated earlier, the surface at Oaklawn on Fantasy Day favored speed, and she was no doubt one of the beneficiaries. Having said that, one of the handicapping angles I favor most is a horse that will be running in blinkers for the second time. Her first try with the shades on was very encouraging (bias or no bias), and if she takes a step forward off that effort second time blinks? She could have a say in the outcome at a big price. I think it’s also worth noting that jockey Victor Espinoza picks up the mount on this daughter of Malibu Moon for the Oaks.

Fashion Plate (20-1) was a solid winner of the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks last month, beating the aforementioned Ria Antonia in the process. The problem Fashion Plate is going to face in the Kentucky Oaks that she didn’t face in the Santa Anita Oaks is pace pressure. Fashion Plate was allowed to walk on the lead in the SA Oaks, setting fractions of :23 and 3, :47 and 1 and 1:11 flat (all very pedestrian times at Santa Anita Park) en route to a front running score. She isn’t likely to get such a soft trip in Louisville, and at the end of the day I’m not sure how good I think the fillies from California really are.

I wish I could make a case for Aurelia’s Belle (100-1)…but I really can’t. She should sit a nice trip, but she’s light-years behind the majority of the fillies in this race. If she has any say in the outcome, I’ll be shocked.

If there’s one filly that I’m likely to bet in this race (if I get fair value), it’s Unbridled Forever (12-1). A daughter of Unbridled’s Song, Unbridled Forever has already shown that she enjoys the main track at Churchill Downs, having broken her maiden there last fall going 7 panels and receiving a 96 BSF in the process. Her last start was in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, a race in which she was soundly defeated by Untapable and Fiftyshadesofgold. While she got trounced in that spot by one of the fillies in this race, I definitely think she needed a race for fitness and should be able to take a major step forward in the Kentucky Oaks. The pedigree is there, the Speed Figures put her reasonably close to the likely favorite in this spot, and she should have a decent pace to close in to. I think Unbridled Forever has an outside shot in the Oaks if she fires her “A+” game.

Empress of Midway (100-1) is another filly that I think is way over-matched in this spot. I think the biggest thing she can do in the Oaks is muddle the pace scenario, which at the end of the day could greatly alter the outcome. She’ll be up close early, but I doubt she’ll be around late. Another shocker if she were to win.

My Miss Sophia (10-1) is one of two fillies entered in the Kentucky Oaks by trainer Todd Pletcher, and she would seem to be the better of the two. In her first start against winners last out, she not only won the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct – she won by more than seven lengths. While she did get loose on the lead and was allowed to set very soft splits, I believe this filly has the ability to rate kindly and sit just off the likes of Fashion Plate and Empress of Midway. If she does, she should get first run on the closers and could be tough to run down late. Another thing to like about My Miss Sophia is the fact that she’s already won at the 9 furlong distance – something none of the other fillies have done. If you’re looking to play against the favorite, maybe My Miss Sophia is your horse.

Got Lucky (30-1) is the other Pletcher entrant in the Oaks, and she’s run into some of the best of her generation early on in her career. Out of five career starts, she’s accrued a victory and FOUR placings – something that can be very valuable when it comes to creating exotic wagers. She’s been soundly defeated by both My Miss Sophia and Untapable this year, and I don’t see her turning the tables on either or both of them in this spot. However, she could be a nice horse use underneath in exotics.

One’s handicapping of the 140th Kentucky Oaks really comes down to one question – do you think Untapable (1-1) is the real deal or not? If you think she’s legit, there really isn’t any need to do much handicapping. Her past two graded stakes efforts at Fair Grounds jump off the page, winning one by more than nine lengths and the other by nearly eight lengths – and neither of them were under much urging from rider Rosie Napravnik. Each of those performances were of supreme quality, and if she delivers anything close to either of those, the rest of the field will be running for second. All that being said, if you’re on the fence about Untapable, there are a few things you can hang your hat on. One thing to consider is the fact that each of her triple digit Beyer Speed Figures came at Fair Grounds…horse for course possibly? Another item that could be pointed to is that while she’s 2-2 racing at Churchill Downs, each of those races came back relatively light on the BSF scale and she only won them by a combined length and a half. If you’re not a believer, there are a few things that you can lean on to make your case.

I would love to pick Unbridled Forever on top in the Kentucky Oaks, but I simply can’t deny the talent that Untapable has shown this winter in Louisiana. This may be high praise, but each of her victories at Fair Grounds were Rachel Alexandra-esq performances. The outside post is of little concern to me, as she has done her best running in a stalking or off the pace fashion. At the end of the day, I just think Untapable is head and shoulders above the rest of the three year old fillies at this point (and possibly the colts/geldings, as well). I like Untapable to win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.

SELECTION: #13 – Untapable, Rosie Napravnik; ML 4-5

Value Play: #9- Unbridled Forever, Robbie Albarado; ML 12-1

Grade III Lexington Stakes Analysis, Keeneland Race Course – 4/19/14

Keeneland Green LogoThe Grade III Lexington Stakes will be run at Keeneland Race Course on Saturday, with post time set for 5:13 ET. Although the Lexington does offer points toward qualification for the Kentucky Derby, none of the entrants are being pointed toward the starting gate two weeks from now at Churchill Downs. That being said, the Lexington will serve as a nice stepping stone for some turf and synthetic runners whose connections have bigger stakes races in mind down the line. A solid field of eleven is scheduled to go postward; let’s take a look at some of the contenders in this year’s Lexington Stakes.

Divine Oath is one of three entrants that trainer Todd Pletcher sends out in this race, and he may be the best of the lot. This son of Broken Vow is two for two in his early career, with both of those victories coming over the Gulfstream Park turf. What really stands out about this horse’s unblemished record is the way in which he’s done it. When breaking his maiden, Divine Oath sat within a length of the lead for the duration of the 7.5 furlongs, ultimately prevailing by a half length over next-out winner (and possible Kentucky Derby entrant) Ring Weekend. In his subsequent start, Divine Oath trailed the pacesetters by 10 lengths and proceeded to close furiously late to win against an allowance optional claiming field which has yielded some nice runners. Javier Castellano stays aboard, and you’ve got to believe if this horse can transfer its turf form to the polytrack, he’ll be very tough.

Supermonic is another of the Pletcher triumvirate that runs in the Lexington. Although his victory seven days ago at Keeneland was achieved on the front end, the fractions were rather soft and with the presence of Solitary Ranger in this spot, I can’t envision any scenario where Supermonic has things so easy throughout. It’s definitely notable that Castellano gets off and hops on Divine Oath…although picking up Joel Rosario isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m going to take a wait and see approach – if Supermonic beats me on short rest, so be it.

Speaking of Solitary Ranger, he’ll be returning in the Lexington after delivering a sub-par effort in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park last month. I believe this horse is the speed of the speed and will have command of the tempo throughout. The biggest question surrounding this son of U S Ranger? How far does he truly want to go? There’s no doubt that he’s talented and that he loves the synthetic surfaces – but there should be some questions regarding his distance limitations. The biggest thing this horse has going for him might be the short stretch run that goes along with this 8.5 furlong trip over the Keeneland main track…to quote my friend and Horseplayers castmate Lee Davis, “Come and catch me!”

Poker Player was a “buzz” horse headed into the Spiral Stakes last month, and he surely seems to be a “buzz” horse headed into the Lexington. Winner of the Grade III Bourbon over the polytrack at Keeneland last fall (washed off turf), Poker Player is a horse that does his best running late and should enjoy getting back over a surface which he’s had success on in the past. The only problem I have with him here? The 10-1 morning line is an absolute pipe-dream. I’ll be shocked if he’s much higher than 5-1 come post time.

I believe Josie Carroll’s Ami’s Holiday is a talented colt, but I’m not sure he’s going to be ready to roll off the bench in this race. Ami’s Holiday was a graded stakes winner at two in Canada, taking the Grade III Grey at Woodbine last October. Although this is a graded stakes race, I’m of the opinion that the connections have bigger and better things in mind for the son of Harlan’s Holiday – namely the Queen’s Plate in early July. He’s got some ability, but I’m going to have to side against this horse coming off a four month layoff.

When it comes to the Lexington Stakes, I think it begins and ends with Mr Speaker. Mr Speaker is the class of the field, having faced the likes of Cairo Prince, Intense Holiday, Storming Inti, Gala Award and Bobbys Kitten. He’s also incredibly versatile, having won races both on the lead and from well off the pace. His effort in the Grade III Palm Beach at Gulfstream last month was a bit of an odd one, as he was off a hair slow and then got squeezed prior to the first turn. A middle move had him improve his position significantly, only to ultimately end up running second by less than a length. All in all, I thought he was many lengths the best in that race, and I think he has a world of talent. If his :46 and 1 work over the polytrack on April 6 is any indication, Mr Speaker should have no issues taking to the synthetic surface. Trainer Shug McGaughey has stated that the goal all along for Mr Speaker is the Belmont Derby on July 5, so the Lexington is a nice intermediary goal for this son of Pulpit. He may not offer much value in this spot, but at the end of the day I think he’s clearly the most talented horse in this field. I like Mr Speaker to win the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

SELECTION: 1 – Mr Speaker, Jose Lezcano; ML 5-2

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) last year and he is one of the stars of the recently concluded Esquire TV series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

Grade I Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Park – 4/5/2014

Santa Anita Number 7_editor_681x410The Grade I Santa Anita Derby will be run at Santa Anita Park on Saturday, with post time set for 6:30 ET. The Santa Anita Derby has historically been one of the most important Kentucky Derby prep races, and I don’t think this year’s edition is any different. While it may not be the best betting race of the prep season, it is sure to yield a few horses that will likely be among the favorites when the 20 three year olds step into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Let’s take a look at some of the contenders in this year’s Santa Anita Derby.

California Chrome is the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby, largely due to his massive performance in the Grade II San Felipe last month. If he runs anything close to that effort, it’s likely that everyone else will be running for second money. Having said that, I have reason to believe that this horse won’t be fully cranked up for this race. California Chrome has enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby already, so you’ve got to believe that trainer Art Sherman has the bigger picture in mind – use the Santa Anita Derby as a final tune up so that this son of Lucky Pulpit is ready to roll at Churchill Downs next month. He’s fully capable of putting forth a big effort on Saturday, but I’m siding against him on the win end.

I’ve loved Hoppertunity since he broke his maiden January 30 at Santa Anita, but I don’t love his chances to win the Santa Anita Derby. Hoppertunity is basically in the same boat as California Chrome headed into this race – he’s got the necessary points needed to get into the starting gate, so it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see his “A” game on Saturday. There have been a fair amount of people that think he’s a notch below the top California three year olds…nobody knows for sure, but hopefully we’ll find out four weeks from now in Louisville. He’s still my pick to win the Kentucky Derby and he may run well on Saturday, but I’m not expecting a win out of Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby. (It is interesting to note the developing plot for this horse, though: a quality three year old colt owned by Mike Pegram (among others) and trained by Bob Baffert, yet people seem to be ranking him behind the other talented three year olds from California. Can you say, “Real Quiet”?)

If you’re looking for a horse outside the “Big Three”, might I suggest Schoolofhardrocks? This lightly raced son of Rock Hard Ten most definitely needed a race coming off a roughly six month layoff, so a step forward on Saturday wouldn’t be a surprise. The biggest question this colt has to answer – is his best good enough to compete with the three favorites? He’s going to be the fourth choice in the Santa Anita Derby, and realistically he is an outsider. If both California Chrome and Hoppertunity don’t bring anything resembling their best to the track Saturday, maybe this guy can round out the exacta. If you decide to take a shot and play him to win, make sure you receive generous odds.

The reason I’m picking John Sadler’s Candy Boy to win the Santa Anita Derby isn’t necessarily because I love the horse, but it’s more a product of the scenario that presents itself. With the Baffert and Sherman entrants already locked into the Derby field, I’m going to go with the horse that NEEDS points in order to race in Kentucky four weeks from now. Candy Boy was a well beaten second in December’s CashCall Futurity, but that was behind the highly regarded Shared Belief – a gelding who went on to win an Eclipse Award as Champion Two Year Old. His return to the races in the Grade II Robert Lewis at Santa Anita was a strong effort, one in which he defeated both Chitu and Midnight Hawk – the subsequent 1/2 finishers of the Sunland Derby. I’m honestly not sure how good this horse is, and I truly believe his long term future will be on the grass. That being said, there is no doubt that he’s going to be fully cranked for this race, and that’s something that can’t be said for his main competition. For that reason, I’m going with Candy Boy to win the Santa Anita Derby.

SELECTION: 6 – Candy Boy, Gary Stevens; ML 9-5

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire TV series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

Grade III Spiral Stakes Analysis, Turfway Park – 3/22/2014

Break from Gate Editorial_659x378The Grade III Spiral Stakes will be run at Turfway Park on Saturday, with post time set for 6:28 ET. The Spiral has yielded some winners in the past that ultimately became very talented runners, including Animal Kingdom, Hard Spun and Flower Alley. Will there be another Animal Kingdom that comes out of this race and goes on to win the Kentucky Derby? Time will tell. Let’s take a quick look at some of the contenders for this year’s running of the Spiral Stakes.

Tamarando will likely be the favorite for this edition of the Spiral, and based off of his synthetic track record, he should be. Shipping in from Northern California for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, Tamarando is the only multiple graded stakes winner in the field and has the benefit of having top jockey Russell Baze aboard. His closing running style means he’ll be at the mercy of pace and trip, but on his best day he’s a definite contender in this spot.

Almost Famous is a runner out of the Patrick Byrne barn that did no running at all in the Fountain of Youth last month at Gulfstream, mainly due to an early issue just out of the starting gate. He’s a horse that should be forwardly placed in this race, and on his best day has every right to be considered a player. He won’t be my selection, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this son of Unbridled’s Song run a big one.

Solitary Ranger is a horse coming off of a nice score in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway last month, done so in front running fashion. He’ll face pressure early from Almost Famous on his outside, but I’d imagine jockey Florent Geroux makes sure that this son of U S Ranger clears the field and gets to the lead. I love the fact that he’s won over three different tracks – Arlington’s polytrack, Fair Grounds’ yielding turf course, and Turfway’s polytrack. This horse has to be looked at as a gate-to-wire threat in this race.

We Miss Artie comes into the Spiral Stakes off a really poor effort in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream last month, and I truly believe it’s because this horse wants no part of a dirt surface. Luckily for this son of Artie Schiller, the Spiral is run on polytrack – which is much more comparable to turf than dirt. He should relish the synthetic surface at Turfway, and it never hurts when you’ve got John Velazquez aboard. This Pletcher entrant is sure to take quite a bit of money on Saturday, and I’d expect him to bounce back in a big way.

I love Coastline in this spot, and he’s going to be my selection to win the Spiral Stakes on Saturday. His race in the Southwest Stakes last month at Oaklawn was rather disappointing when you look at the beautiful trip he got, but I’ll attribute that to a horse that is still improving and the competition he was running against – the Southwest has come back to be a relatively live race with runners like Tapiture and Ride On Curlin running big in the Rebel Stakes last week. Coastline figures to sit within a length or two of the horses on the front end and get first run on the likes of We Miss Artie, Tamarando and Poker Player. This horse won impressively in his only start over a synthetic surface (Oct. 5, MSW @ Keeneland) and the notable workouts he’s had at the Ocala Training Center (all-weather track) recently suggest to me that he’s ready to flourish on Saturday. I like Coastline to win the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.

SELECTION: 5 – Coastline, Stewart Elliott; ML 8-1

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire TV series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

Grade II Rebel Stakes Analysis, Oaklawn Park – 3/15/2014

The Grade II Rebel Stakes will be run at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, with post time set for 5:04 ET. A salty field of eight is set to go to post, and one could make a case for any number of runners in this spot. This is an important prep race for the Kentucky Derby on May 3, with the winner set to earn 50 qualifying points.

Jet Cat is a horse that has the look of an outsider in this spot. He ran a lackluster fourth in an allowance last time out, and his Beyer Speed Figures don’t put him in the same ballpark as many of these runners. Jet Cat is a toss for me.

Ride On Curlin is an intriguing runner that I’ve liked since last fall. Although he was a well beaten third in the Southwest Stakes last month here at Oaklawn, the ride he received from Calvin Borel was sub-par at best. Following the break, it appeared as though Ride On Curlin would tuck in behind the speed and sit a nice, stalking trip into the first turn. Instead, Borel was set on getting the lead and took Ride On Curlin seven wide throughout the first turn. The Southwest was run at a mile and a sixteenth – Ride On Curlin ran AT LEAST a mile and an eighth in that event. The fact that he held on for third is a credit to the horse’s heart. He’s going to be a very solid price in the Rebel – and he just might be able to get the job done in this spot.

Tapiture was the winner of the Southwest Stakes last month, and he won rather impressively. In his three year old debut, Tapiture set reasonable fractions on the front end en route to a four and a quarter length victory. Although he registered the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any horse in the Rebel field last time out, I’m not convinced he’s the horse to beat. On Saturday he’ll face some added pressure early, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to repel those advances and still hold off the horses coming from behind. I’m going to play against Tapiture in the Rebel Stakes.

Strong Mandate is another horse exiting the Southwest Stakes that had a less-than-stellar ride, this one coming from Joel Rosario. He has every right to improve off his seasonal debut, but in a game where value is key…don’t you want 12-1 or 15-1 on a horse like Ride On Curlin compared to the 9-5 or 2-1 that you’re going to receive on Strong Mandate? I know I do. Strong Mandate is a very nice horse that may just prove to be best, but I could never settle for that short a price in what appears to be a contentious field.

Hoppertunity ships into Arkansas from Southern California for trainer Bob Baffert, and he’s sure to take his fair share of money. After impressively breaking his maiden at Santa Anita, he came back to run a “blah” fourth in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds last month. It’s interesting to see jockey Mike Smith make the trip to Oaklawn and take the mount on this son of Any Given Saturday, and Baffert has a pretty stellar record when it comes to shipping horses into Hot Springs, Arkansas. If you decide to side with him, make sure you get reasonable odds.

Sheltowee’s Boy is coming off of a nice, closing score in an allowance race here last month – but he’s going to have to take a major step forward if he’s going to be competitive in this spot. I’d consider him to round out exotics due to the potentially lively pace up front, but I’ll pass on him as a win contender.

Street Strategy is an interesting runner that is coming off of a strong maiden breaking score at the end of January. It appears as though he has a running style that should be well-suited for the way this race is projected to be run, and he has every right to take a step forward. Take note of the fact that Calvin Borel jumps off Ride On Curlin to take the mount on this son of Street Sense. Throw out this horse at your own risk…

Kobe’s Back is going to be heavily bet – maybe even bet down to favoritism. His return to the races in the San Vicente at Santa Anita last month was a monster effort, but I can’t help but think this horse is destined to be a closing sprinter. There is no denying the horse has talent, but I get the feeling that longer doesn’t necessarily equate to better with this guy. Maybe he blossoms and becomes the “it” horse on the Derby trail after the Rebel, but I’m taking a stand against. I’ll toss Kobe’s Back.

I’ll be honest – the minute I found out a certain horse would be running in this race, I was afraid my judgement of the field would be rather cloudy or that I’d be biased toward this runner. After going through the race in depth, I can say I’ve looked at everything objectively…and I like the horse that I was afraid would cloud my judgement. The day he broke his maiden, I decided that Hoppertunity would be my pick to win the 140th Kentucky Derby in May. His debut in stakes company was a bit bizarre – he broke a step slow and Martin Garcia immediately took him back. He proceeded to run in the middle of the pack and improve his position late, mainly by passing tired rivals down the lane. However, upon further review, I think there was more to his stretch run than just passing tired rivals. Hoppertunity got his final 5/16ths in :31.26, which was the third fastest come home time (final fraction) in the field. Considering he was wide turning for home and continued on willingly, I think that’s a huge positive for this young, lightly raced horse. If he can get out of the gate smoothly tomorrow, I think he sits a beautiful trip just off the leaders and gets first run on the closers. I like Hoppertunity to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

SELECTION: 5 – Hoppertunity, Mike Smith; ML 10-1

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

Grade II Tampa Bay Derby Analysis, Tampa Bay Downs – 3/8/2014

The Grade II Tampa Bay Derby will be run Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, with post time set for 5:25 ET. A field of ten is scheduled to enter the starting gate, and it appears to be a relatively wide open race. Accordingly, I think you need to swing for the fences in this spot.

Ring Weekend is coming off of a maiden special weight score at Gulfstream Park last month and picks up one of top riders in the Tampa jockey colony, Daniel Centeno. Graham Motion knows how to condition horses and have them ready for big races, but this seems to be a pretty big step forward. He’ll need to improve, so if you side with him – demand value.

Surfing U S A is likely the horse that will load into the gates as the post time favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby. The Todd Pletcher trainee ran a respectable second in his three year old debut to a very nice colt in Top Billing, and he has every right to improve going forward. He has good, tactical speed that should prove to be beneficial to him in this spot. Any progression for Surfing U S A and the rest of this field could be in trouble.

Matador ran a reasonable fourth in the Grade III Sam F. Davis last month here at Tampa – but I’ve got a negative take on the Sam F. Davis. Coming out of that race, everyone and their brother said the horse to take going forward was the runner up, Harpoon. Harpoon returned last weekend in the Gotham Stakes and proceeded to lay a MAJOR egg. Until a runner proves to me that the Davis wasn’t a weak race, that’s the stance I’m taking. Pass on Matador.

Coltimus Prime may win the award for the funniest name in the race, but that doesn’t make him a contender. He’s bred to run for days, but the combination of this being his first start on dirt (although Tampa is a quirky surface), as well as his first start as a three year old makes me want to take a wait and see approach with this son of Milwaukee Brew. Pass on Coltimus Prime.

Conquest Titan has been a bit of a “buzz” horse during this Kentucky Derby prep season, and rightfully so. In his three year old debut, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, Conquest Titan was trounced by the current Derby favorite, Cairo Prince. That being said – he did finish second, and the third place finisher in the Holy Bull, Intense Holiday, came back to win the Risen Star last month at Fair Grounds – flattering both Cairo Prince and Conquest Titan. He’s going to be one of the betting favorites in the Tampa Bay Derby, and all signs point toward him being a major contender in this spot. Watch out.

Vinceremos was the winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes here at Tampa last month, and horses that have an affinity for the Tampa Bay Downs surface tend to run well there no matter what…but I just don’t love that race he’s coming out of. He has nice, tactical speed – but until he proves to me that that effort wasn’t a fluke, I’ll play against him. Pass on Vinceremos.

East Hall ran a very big race in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream last month, but there have to be a few concerns about this son of Graeme Hall. For starters, he hasn’t had a breather since beginning his career as a juvenile last June. At some point, you’ve got to think this horse is going to hit the wall and need some time off. Secondly, and most importantly for me, is the fact that East Hall has only crossed the finish line first one time. Technically he’s a two time winner, but one of those victories involved his being moved up to first via disqualification. I’ll pass on East Hall.

Cousin Stephen falls into that category of having run in the Sam F. Davis…but this may be the one runner that I’d be willing to play back right out of that race. You’ve got to believe they’ll have this horse sit off the pacesetters, as it clearly didn’t work last time when they sent him to the lead. You can’t help but notice that Javier Castellano regains the mount for Chad Brown…definitely a vote of confidence for this son of Proud Citizen.

Hy Kodiak Warrior is an intriguing runner that has been training up a storm at Calder Race Course – a notoriously “tiring” race track. Distance shouldn’t be an issue for him being by Kodiak Kowboy out of an Unbridled mare – a mare that has dropped her fair share of runners that have won routing on the dirt. The addition of Lasix for the first time can only be a positive. If he can stay within striking range throughout the early running, he could be a player turning for home.

Tuscan Getaway looks like he has some talent on the green, but I’m not sure he really wants to run on the dirt. Pass on Tuscan Getaway.

At the end of the day, I do believe this is a wide open event. Are any of these horses legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders? I’m not so sure about that – but there are some promising runners that could have a say in some respectable stakes races down the road. Of the runners in the Tampa Bay Derby, I’m most interested in Hy Kodiak Warrior. He appears to have a fair amount of upside, and I love the addition of Lasix for the first time. The outside posts at Tampa Bay Downs aren’t very kind to runners, but I think this horse has the talent to overcome that issue. Upside in a field I’m not sold on is what I look for in these kinds of races – Hy Kodiak Warrior fits that mold. I like Hy Kodiak Warrior to win the Tampa Bay Derby.

SELECTION: #9 – Hy Kodiak Warrior, Gabriel Saez; ML 10-1

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is thrilled to offer his educational analysis of major stakes races.

Grade I Santa Anita Handicap Analysis, Santa Anita Park – 3/8/2014

The Grade I Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday at Santa Anita Park, with post time set for 7:00 ET. This is easily the most anticipated Big ‘Cap in recent memory, and rightfully so. Three of the best older handicap horses in the country will tangle at “The Great Race Place” this weekend, with each of them looking to take the lion’s share of the $750,000 purse.

Will Take Charge is coming off a loss in his season debut in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t put forth a monster effort. The winner of the Donn, Lea, broke the track record for nine furlongs at Gulfstream and recorded a 114 Beyer Speed Figure in doing so. WTC recorded a 111 BSF in his four year old debut, and I think it could be argued that his race was as impressive – if not more than – the winner Lea’s. The son of Unbridled’s Song was at a tactical disadvantage, as Lea sat the perfect trip stalking the pacesetter while Will Take Charge had to rally from off the pace – something that can, at times, be nearly impossible at Gulfstream Park. The fact that he only finished a length and a half behind the winner is something that should be commended, not criticized. The workout tab for WTC has been steady over the past couple weeks, and the bullet he fired on March 2 at Oaklawn leads me to believe he’s sitting on a big one for the Big ‘Cap.

Mucho Macho Man is the reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion. He’s coming off a 14 length victory in his seasonal debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park. He’s two for three over the Santa Anita Park dirt, with his only loss being a half length loss in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s got Gary Stevens aboard. All of this is a recipe for a short priced favorite – but is it warranted? There is no denying MMM is a quality runner; his credentials don’t lie. That said, I can’t help but try to poke some holes in this horse. His victory in the Sunshine Millions was nothing more than a paid workout – the second and third place finishers were 199-1 and 106-1, and the rest of the field was as vanilla as it gets. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he held off Will Take Charge by a nose – even though WTC was fanned roughly eight wide into the stretch while MMM ran comfortably in the four path (truth be told – if Declaration of War changes leads neither MMM or WTC win, but I digress). Add in his “lackluster” workout this past week over the Santa Anita main track, and I’ve got too many concerns of my own about this horse to back at a short price. He’s fully capable of winning this year’s Santa Anita Handicap, but I’m going to play against him.

Blingo is coming off a nice victory in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes last month at Santa Anita, rallying from off the pace. He’ll have to do the same this weekend while facing tougher, but that’s not my biggest concern with this horse. As a son of Artie Schiller out of a Sure Blade mare, his pedigree doesn’t necessarily scream, “Long on the dirt”. He’s a nice horse, but I’m not convinced he’ll be able to run with horses of this caliber and also stay the final furlong. Pass.

Imperative ran admirably when finishing second to the aforementioned Blingo in last month’s San Antonio. He sat close to a hotly contested early pace and got first run on the closers, yet couldn’t quite hold off Blingo in deep stretch. His last out BSF jumps off the page in that it was 12 points higher than any other figure he’d ever received, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it came when trainer George Papaprodromou put this horse back on the dirt. Being a son of Bernardini out a mare who has dropped her share of winners routing on dirt, it’s no surprise that Imperative thrived when he got back on the surface that he was bred to be successful on. Maybe he’ll take another step forward on Saturday – but it’s going to have to be a MAJOR step forward if he’s going to win a race like this.

I wish I could make a case for Rousing Sermon in the Big ‘Cap…but I can’t. He’s a nice horse that has won a fair amount of races, but none of them have been against this level of competition. I’d give him a slight chance to round out a trifecta or superfecta, but that’s about it. If he wins, it’ll be a shocker.

American Blend…see above on Rousing Sermon…pass.

Game On Dude is the reigning champion of the Santa Anita Handicap, and his victory last year was arguably the most impressive win in the race’s history. He continued on to have another very successful campaign, in which he also won the Charles Town Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. That was all well and good, but everyone wanted to know if this was finally the year GoD would win his Breeders’ Cup Classic. At this point we all know that didn’t work out very well for him, but he did return to finish a game second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap at Churchill last November. Major concerns arose with GoD’s seven year old debut as he was a soundly defeated fifth in the San Antonio, losing to Blingo and Imperative – both of whom he’ll run into again on Saturday. I’ve never been a huge fan of Game On Dude, but there is one major thing that makes him intriguing in the Big ‘Cap…he appears to be lone speed. It’s no secret he runs his best when he’s loose out front, and unless Gary Stevens sends Mucho Macho Man after him to contest the pace, Mike Smith may find himself lonely on the front end. Rumors of Game On Dude’s being “over the hill” may have been very premature…we’ll find out Saturday.

I’ve always been a fan of Hear the Ghost, but this spot looks entirely too difficult for him. He was no match for horses like Shakin It Up and Govenor Charlie, both of whom would need to run the race of their lives to even be in the same ballpark as the main contenders. I believe he has some upside, but the water appears too deep for Hear the Ghost.

At the end of the day, I truly think Will Take Charge is the best horse in the field. He will be incredibly tough to beat in this spot and, I believe, will have the best 2014 out of any horse in this race. However, circumstances have come about where the race shape sets up rather favorably for one horse in particular, and that horse is Game On Dude. If Gary Stevens sends Mucho Macho Man after him to contest the lead, Game On Dude is likely in trouble – but that could also potentially leave Mucho Macho Man vulnerable to the oncoming Will Take Charge. I can’t see Stevens using up his horse just to try to run with Game On Dude early. Unless one of the outsiders tries to get brave and run with Game On Dude, I think he sets a comfortable pace and has just enough left in the tank to hold off Will Take Charge to repeat as champion of the Santa Anita Handicap.

SELECTION: #7 – Game On Dude, Mike Smith; ML 5-2

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is thrilled to offer his educational analysis of major stakes races.

Grade III Gotham Stakes Analysis, Aqueduct Racetrack – 3/1/2014

The Grade III Gotham Stakes will be run tomorrow at Aqueduct, with post time set for 4:17 ET. After breaking this race down, I’m not sure that there are any true Kentucky Derby prospects in the field. That said – I feel like this could be “leg two” of what could be a truly great racing rivalry between two solid New York breds.

When looking at incremental splits, you’d have to believe Joe Rocco, Jr. will be sending In Trouble to the front. The Tony Dutrow entrant hasn’t been seen since winning the Grade II Futurity at Belmont in September, but there’s no denying that the colt has talent. After sitting close to the pace in each of his two victories as a two year old sprinting, I’d expect him to be the pacemaker while stretching out to two turns for the first time in his career. Dutrow is solid when it comes to having horses ready off reasonably long layoffs, but I’m still going to take a wait and see approach with this son of Tiz Wonderful.

 “Call me pessimistic, call me what you will – I don’t like to play horses that have a penchant for coming up short time and time again. “

Whenever Todd Pletcher has a three year old entered in a Kentucky Derby prep, you can be sure people will be talking about him. Pletcher will send out a Tapit colt named Harpoon in the Gotham, and he’s sure to attract plenty of attention at the windows. After a less-than-stellar trip in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa which resulted in a nosed out second, many said he was the horse that you should take out of that race. I’m not sold just yet…whether he was unlucky or not in the Grade III Davis, facts are facts – this horse has run second in four of his five career starts. Call me pessimistic, call me what you will – I don’t like to play horses that have a penchant for coming up short time and time again. I’ll pass on Harpoon.

Extrasexyhippzster is an interesting entrant that is shipping into Long Island from his home in Maryland, and he could very well prove to be a formidable foe in the Gotham. The Michael Trombetta trained runner has won back-t0-back  listed stakes by open lengths, and the real positive about this colt is the fact that he’s won said races over both the Aqueduct inner dirt and the main track at Laurel Park. The water is considerably deeper in this spot, but he should sit a very nice, stalking trip and could be the main threat to two horses I think are the class of the field.

Just because I don’t think there are any Kentucky Derby prospects doesn’t mean there aren’t any nice horses in this year’s Gotham. Uncle Sigh and Samraat each ran a race for the ages in the Grade III Withers at the beginning of February, and I expect each of them to run similar races here in this spot, as well. I don’t like either of their pedigrees when it comes to the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby, mainly because they each have Indian Charlie influences – and Indian Charlie’s best runners excel between six and eight and a half furlongs. Lucky for all of us, the Gotham is run at eight and a half furlongs. Samraat got the better of Uncle Sigh in the Withers, but I expect Uncle Sigh to turn the tables tomorrow for one major reason – the weight break. In the Withers, Uncle Sigh carried 116 pounds and Samraat carried 118 pounds, with Samraat’s final margin of victory being a length. Tomorrow’s scenario is different – Samraat will carry 123 pounds to Uncle Sigh’s 116. I’m not huge on the whole “carrying more weight” angle…at the end of the day I’m not convinced a 1,200 pound animal is going to be able to tell the difference between 126 pounds and 123 pounds. That said, when there is a seven pound weight break between two horses that were so close in their prior race, I can’t help but think the weight difference is beneficial to Uncle Sigh. I like Uncle Sigh to win the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct.

SELECTION: #4 – Uncle Sigh, Corey Nakatani; ML 3-1

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.  This is his first guest post for Agameofskill.com