The Great Race Place has a solid card to open the season and, moreover, wastes little time getting into downhill turf madness!
Race 2, a $25,000 open claiming race, features several entries who have run well over this course in the past. The early pick 4 starts here and I will go three wide.
1 RED JAG ran his best figure of the year when finishing third over this course two back. He has the right to improve off of that start, especially considering that he acquires the services of John Velazquez for the first time. With the exception of an eighth place finish at Del Mar, he has been very consistent over the turf and I see no reason for that trend to cease here. He was on the pace last time out before losing ground at the end and seems likely to sit further off of it this time. In the end, Red Jag has two strong qualities in his favor: a good showing over the course and the switch to Velasquez. He has also put in some solid works over the Hollywood Allweather. He may drop a bit from the 8-1 morning line, but should still offer a solid price. There is no chance I would leave the 5-year-old gelding out of an exacta or trifecta, though I also like two others here.
6 CHEROKEE HEAVEN ran in the same race as Red Jag two back, finishing sixth. Last time out, he took a very minimal class drop ($3,000) and won. He switched to Tyler Baze for that race and the jockey returns here. That was Cherokee Heaven's first win since May 2011, as he began a year-long break in August of that year. His works, however, have been slower in December than they were in November. Outside of his sixth-place finish two back - potentially a race he needed to round back into form - he has two firsts, a second, and a third over this course in recent history. Perhaps Cherokee Heaven is getting his feet back under him and could be ready to run. Hector Palma has a nice $3.21 ROI off a layoff, but I would like to see a little more from this one prior to taking him at 9-2.
I am going with 12 MR. BOSSY PANTS, who has the most experience over this strange and wonderful course. I have no idea why he was run on the dirt last out and, while he did finish third, he was way back and earned a figure more than 20 points below what he has averaged. Yes, that race is a toss. Prior to that race, he ran four in a row down the hill, won three of those, and finished third in the other. He had four different jockeys in those races and gets a fifth here: Edgar Maldonado, who has been riding very well lately. This $25,000 race is a lower tag than he has been in for in a while and, considering how well he ran on this course in pricier races, 5-1 looks very nice here. He has run an every-other pattern in his last four and we are now sitting on the upswing of that trend. I will take the grey on the hill to win and over the two aforementioned entries. I would use all three in the pick 4 and would include 8 STONESIDE and 13 MR. CANDY BAR were my pockets deeper.
Selectons: 12 / 1 / 6
Race 3 is a $20,000 maiden claiming sprint on the dirt. There are two 5-year-olds, one unraced, and a 7-year old here. I will consider 5 SKY FOX. Purchased for $150,000 at the 2008 Keeneland September sale, let us just say he has not exactly panned out. The owners have stuck with Bruce Headley, however, and Sky Fox managed a second-place last time out at this level - the lowest he has run at. He shaves off half of a furlong here and, if nothing else, it's about time. Headley is good with maiden claimers and horses coming off long layoffs (Sky Fox has not run since February), but the 4-1 price is lower than I would like to take for a $150,000 5-year-old maiden in his tenth career start.
I like 1 SOUTHERN HEART, who may well run the best race of his two-race career here if he likes the dirt. The Arch colt has shown improving works, culminating in a five-furlong work in 59 & 2 on December ninth. Eric Guillot is 30% with an $8.54 ROI dropping maiden special weight runners into maiden claiming races, though he is not so good going turf-to-dirt (9%, $0.64 ROI). That last work on the dirt, though, suggests he may relish it.
Speaking of trainers who do well going turf-to-dirt, Peter Miller certainly belongs in the conversation. He wins 36% of such those races, returning $2.87 - by far the best percentage angle for this high-percentage trainer. However, I am not as impressed by the running lines of the horse, 3 TIME TO DOUBLEDOWN. He has not been working particularly well over the layoff, but he has improved. He has been soundly beaten in his two tries and will need to take a big step forward at a short price.
12 GOODBYE CHARLIE looks to have a shot here as well. He has run on all three surfaces, with his best races coming on the dirt. Tyler Baze nearly got the 4-year-old gelding home two starts back and he has been working well over the dirt since at least October. While trainer Herbert Bacorn does not win many races, he has a nice $4.01 ROI coming off a short layoff. This field has few entries that look to have a good shot here, making 5-1 a fairly attractive price for this experienced maiden.
Again, were my pockets deeper, I would probably add one more: 14 BALLADERO. The first-time starter has been working fairly well, with an odd one furlong gate work on December 22. The connections' percentages are low, but the price is high.
Selections: 1 / 5 / 12 / (3)
Race 4 kicks off the Graded Stakes action with the La Brea. I like 1 MAMMA KIMBO, but I just cannot go against 5 MY MISS AURELIA here. Were Mamma Kimbo poised to get an easy lead, I would be more inclined to shoot for the upset, but the fact that 2 NECHEZ DAWN is just to her outside likely means that she will not. Bob Baffert has won this race six times to Steve Asmussen's zero, but with arguably the best three-year-old filly in the country, he should get his first La Brea victory here.
Selections: Single 5, small backup with 1.
I would rather close out this pick 4 with the Malibu, since I like DRILL there at a good price, but I will have to make due with Race 5, a tough Sir Beaufort Stakes. There are a number of horses who have been unsuccessful in graded company here, so I will look first to a newcomer: 9 SILENTIO (grandson of Sunday Silence who also shares a name with Søren Kierkegaard's alias Johannes de Silentio). He gets the slight upgrade to Bejarano for this race and could very well improve, having run well in his three career starts. He defeated favored 7 BATTLE FORCE in his maiden and a repeat of that exacta would not be a shock.
Battle Force returns to turf for John Sherriffs after one race on Allweather. The Giant's Causeway colt does not have an intriguing work tab, but he does carry the best overall race resume into this contest. He was a deep closer in his first three starts, but stalked the pace last out. It will be curious to see where Mike Smith settles him this time. This horse looks to be a tough runner who I would feel comfortable backing, although the price is a bit low.
3 SMART ELLIS was over his head in the Hollywood Derby, but he was competitive in the Grade 2 Twilight Derby over this course. Richard Mandella wins with 23% of his entries coming off of short layoffs and Smart Ellis did break his maiden at this distance. I prefer the two aforementioned entries quite a bit more than this one, but a case can be made for just about any of these horses. Again, could I afford to, I would buy the race. That not being the case, I will keep the ticket cheap, go three-deep, and hope for the best.
Selections: 9 / 7 / 3
Full Pick 4
1, 6, 12 / 1, 5, 12, (3) / 5, (1) / 3, 7, 9