Saturday plays: Picking Derby preps, Santa Anita Handicap

Saturday plays: Picking Derby preps, Santa Anita Handicap
Photo: Benoit Photo

As stated before on this blog, it does not make sense to rely on a favorite who tries a new distance or surface for the first time. In the Grade 1, $400,000 Santa Anita Handicap, Maxfield attempts 1¼ miles for the first time as the heavy favorite, making his overall value questionable.

Even though Maxfield might win and maintain his undefeated record anyway, the below list of Saturday selections across Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs and Santa Anita will offer a different selection for the Big 'Cap.

If Maxfield prevails, then just move on to tomorrow.

Aqueduct Race 9: $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3)

Highly Motivated enters the Gotham Stakes off a four-month layoff for trainer Chad Brown. Most horses peak in their second or third start back.

However, he brings proven ability as the 4¼-length Nyquist Stakes winner at Keeneland last November with a closing style that is supposed to help.

According to TimeformUS, the Gotham pace is projected as fast. Speed horses such as Wipe the Slate, Freedom Fighter, Weyburn and Capo Kane are expected to contribute to hot fractions, with Highly Motivated likely to sit right behind them.

For bettors skeptical about the layoff, Highly Motivated easily outworked a good horse in Excellent Timing on Feb. 13. The workout is on XBTV.

The positives aspects of this colt outweigh the layoff concerns. As long as his odds stay at even money or higher, Highly Motivated is the choice.

Tampa Bay Downs Race 5: $100,000 Challenger Stakes (G3)

Last Judgment tried to apply pressure to Knicks Go in the early stages of the Pegasus World Cup. Unfortunately, he folded to eighth by 12¾ lengths.

Yet, TimeformUS still awarded Last Judgment a 121 for the off-the-board Pegasus effort. Only one week before the Pegasus Stakes, Last Judgment also took the Sunshine Classic Stakes by 6½ lengths with a 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure. This is an improved horse compared to the past.

Perhaps chasing Knicks Go toughened up Last Judgment as well. Even though he faces pace adversity from War Stopper, TimeformUS Pace Projector labels the pace as slow.

Last Judgment is worth a shot at 4-1.

Tampa Bay Downs Race 11: $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2)

As stated in an earlier post, Promise Keeper brings talent as a five-length Gulfstream maiden winner on slop with a 99 TimeformUS Speed Figure.

The 99 figure on TimeformUS is six points below Candy Man Rocket’s 105 figure for winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), but Promise Keeper has only started twice and can move forward for trainer Todd Pletcher.

In addition, Promise Keeper is drawn well in Post 11. Assuming he uses his speed to clear most of the field, he is likely to settle right behind Candy Man Rocket and Boca Boy. From there, Promise Keeper only needs to wait until those two horses become tired.

Given how Boca Boy faded in the Sam F. Davis and Candy Man Rocket won in a tired fashion, Promise Keeper does not need to take a huge leap.

Promise Keeper is a value at his 8-1 morning line odds. If rain creates a muddy or sloppy track, he looks even better as a horse proven on wet dirt.

Santa Anita Race 6: $300,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2)

The Great One broke his maiden by an eye-opening 14 lengths locally Jan. 23, earning a 113 TimeformUS Speed Figure in the process. Prior to that race, he also ran a game second by a nose in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) to Spielberg with a 111 TimeformUS figure.

If The Great One is going to beat the favorite Life Is Good, he needs to take one more step though, while Life Is Good might need to regress a touch. Why not? Life Is Good shows a 120 figure on TimeformUS for his Sham Stakes (G3) victory, but he did not give a great visual impression as Medina Spirit almost caught him.

It is fair to argue Life Is Good only lost concentration on the lead, but he also began the Sham like a run-off sprinter by building a three-length lead. Not every Baffert-trained pacesetter develops like Authentic. 

With The Great One, bettors get a rising talent who can utilize tactical speed. The Great One is also drawn outside Life Is Good, Dream Shake and Medina Spirit, giving Abel Cedillo the luxury of watching the break. 

Life Is Good is still usable alongside The Great One in multi-race wagers, but The Great One is the right choice for Win or Place bettors.

Santa Anita Race 10: $400,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1)

After flashing unfulfilled promise earlier in his career as a 2-year-old, Express Train is rounding back into a high level as a 4-year-old colt for trainer John Shirreffs.

In his most recent start, Express Train took the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) by a clear 3¼ lengths with a 119 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Express Train won at nine furlongs in a strong manner, giving reason to believe he will handle 1¼ miles in this spot.

Last December, Express Train also ran a strong second in the Malibu Stakes (G1), losing by 4½ lengths to one of the top older dirt routers in Charlatan.

The favorite Maxfield won the Mineshaft Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds with a 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure in his last start over Sonneman. He also took the Tenacious Stakes in December with a 120 over the same rival.

Those figures are not that higher than Express Train’s 119 TimeformUS figure, and Sonneman is not exactly a scary horse to beat. Also, Express Train offers course familiarity, while Maxfield travels west for the first time.

As a last point, Maxfield is unproven past 1 1/16 miles.

At 3-1, Express Train is the more logical choice. 

Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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