Even though the Kentucky Derby trail is over, stakes races continue across the country Saturday at Oaklawn, Keeneland and Santa Anita. The two best races are running at Oaklawn, as the track hosts the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) starring Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver and the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
In addition, the $200,000 Elkhorn Stakes (G2) at Keeneland offers a familiar closer who won as an 8-1 blog selection last fall.
Here are select stakes picks for Saturday.
Keeneland Race 9: $200,000 Elkhorn Stakes (G2)
Regular readers might remember the blog choice North Dakota, who won the Red Smith Stakes (G3) at 8-1 at Aqueduct back in November with a powerful stretch rally after receiving a nice setup for his style.
Two months later, North Dakota gave a disappointing effort in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) at Gulfstream Park. After spending most of the race in last, he swung out in the lane and only made up moderate ground to finish 10th and 4¼ lengths behind the sharp Colonel Liam. Perhaps the slightly shorter distance of the Pegasus affected his punch.
In this spot, North Dakota returns to Keeneland and stretches back out to 1½ miles. On the morning line, he is an attractive 10-1.
Last October on this course, North Dakota ran a troubled fourth in the Sycamore Stakes (G3) after the path on the rail did not materialize under Corey Lanerie. As his momentum came to a halt, Red Knight took advantage of a clear outside rally to win.
Red Knight then lost by half a length to North Dakota after finishing second in the Red Smith. Yet, Red Knight is 3-1 on the morning line, even though the 10-1 North Dakota beat him in their last matchup.
It is not a good idea to “stay married” to past winners, but this is the right situation to bet North Dakota again. He is the top choice.
Oaklawn Race 9: $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2)
Express Train ran second in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), losing by a half-length to Idol with a 125 TimeformUS Speed Figure. If Express Train repeats or improves upon the 125 speed figure while cutting back to nine furlongs against this group, he likely wins. The ship to Oaklawn is not a concern, as trainer John Shirreffs has won here with Zenyatta.
Also take a look at Warrior's Charge, the runner-up last year with a 123 on TimeformUS. According to TimeformUS Pace Projector, he is supposed to secure the lead uncontested through a slow pace.
Silver Prospector holds a reasonable chance as well. In his most recent start, he put up a 123 TimeformUS Speed Figure while running second by six length to Mystic Guide in the Razorback Handicap (G3). Given the poor weather and outside bias, he deserves another chance.
Oaklawn Race 11: $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1)
On paper, Letruska holds the pace advantage in this highly-anticipated race and offers speed figures within range of the top runners.
In her most recent start, she made a solid run off a stalking trip to finish second in the local Azeri Stakes (G2) to Shedaresthedevil, while earning a 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Last August, she also ran a 123 in her gate-to-wire Shuvee Stakes (G3) win.
The favorite Monomoy Girl won the Bayakoa Stakes (G3) in February by two lengths with a 120 on TimeformUS. She also shows two different 123 figures from last year.
Swiss Skydiver won the Beholder Mile (G1) last month with a 122 on TimeformUS. Last October, she took the Preakness with a 127, but the figure looks like an anomaly.
Sure, Letruksa needs some luck. She is capable of winning though and looks like the only logical win bet given the anticipated low odds of Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver.
If Letruska starts at 7-2 or higher, she offers enough value for a win bet. Otherwise, the race is a “skip race."
Santa Anita Race 5: Mizdirection Stakes
Forget about She's So Special's route efforts. This is a true turf sprinter. Also forget about her run in the Music City Stakes at Kentucky Downs on the strange turf course.
On Santa Anita's own turf course, She's So Special shows an excellent 3-for-3 record in turf sprints. She even won against males in her last two turf sprint tries here by capturing the Desert Code Stakes last June and an open optional claiming race for 3-year-olds back in May.
According to Pace Projector, the race sets up for her closing style as well, with at least four other speeds ahead early.
She's So Special is the top choice and good value at 4-1.
Santa Anita Race 8: $200,000 Californian Stakes (G2)
In his last two starts, Independence Hall ran third by three lengths to Knicks Go in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) and fourth by 2½ lengths in the Santa Anita Handicap. In the latter race, the classic 1¼ miles likely took him past his optimal distance of eight-to-nine furlongs.
Independence Hall is supposed to beat this field. Growth Engine and Magic On Tap show optional claiming-level credentials. Country Grammer won the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) last summer, but he makes his first start off a layoff. Royal Ship likely prefers turf racing.
At low odds, if Independence Hall repeats his 129 TimeformUS Speed Figure from the Pegasus World Cup, he wins. If he runs a number three or four points below that, he probably still wins.