In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Johnson will share promising horses from his handicapping watch list, reviewing runners who have recently caught his eye and previewing horses scheduled to run back in the near future.
Astute might not be the most accomplished filly entered in Saturday’s fifth race at Los Alamitos, the Grade 1, $300,000 Starlet (post time 5:30 p.m. EST). But she certainly ranks among the most exciting.
A daughter of champion sprinter Speightstown, Astute showed talent in her debut dashing 5 1/2 furlongs over the Santa Anita turf course, leading all the way to prevail by a head under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. This performance was especially noteworthy since trainer Richard Mandella isn’t a frequent winner with first-time starters, striking at just an 11-percent rate since 2000.
Unsurprisingly, Astute took a step forward in her second start. But I am not sure anyone could have predicted what a brilliant performance she would unleash. Overlooked at 5-1 in a quality renewal of the 6 1/2-furlong Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar, Astute battled for the lead through quick fractions, then powered away down the stretch to win by 7 1/2 lengths.
The race came back strong on the speed figure scales, producing an 87 Beyer and a 96 Brisnet. These numbers stack up nicely against the best figures posted by expected favorite Princess Noor, winner of the Del Mar Debutante (G1) and Chandelier (G2). After dominating her first three starts in unchallenged fashion, Princess Noor faltered to fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, though whether it was the quality of competition or the cross-country travel that triggered her defeat is open to debate.
Princess Noor looms as a formidable contender in the Starlet, but I suspect Astute – with her exceptional speed and rapidly-improving profile – can steal the show.
Just like in the Starlet, Saturday’s tenth race at Aqueduct, the $250,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (G1, post time 4:13 p.m. EST) is a battle of proven Grade 1 talent versus up-and-coming potential. Established top-level winners Firenze Fire and Mind Control will be joined in the starting gate by the Grade 1-placed duo of King Guillermo and True Timber, giving the Cigar Mile excellent depth.
Yet the 7-5 morning line favorite is Performer, who has never contested so much as a Grade 2 race, let alone a Grade 1. That might seem strange at first glance, but the talent Performer has shown against easier competition suggests the son of Speightstown has the goods to compete against elite competition.
Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Performer has won five straight races dating back to the summer of 2019. His most significant success came in the 2019 Discovery (G3) racing 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct, where he comfortably defeated Jim Dandy (G2) winner Tax with a career-best 102 Brisnet Speed rating.
But Performer’s most visually impressive effort came in a one-mile allowance race at Belmont Park in October. Returning from a 10 1/2-month layoff, Performer settled a couple of lengths off the early pace, then swept to the front and won with complete authority by 1 3/4 lengths. He was never asked for his best run and seemed to have a lot left in the tank.
Performer has found the perfect spot to make his Grade 1 debut. With Firenze Fire a bit questionable over Saturday’s distance, and with Mind Control seemingly out of form, the Cigar Mile is ripe for conquest by a talented up-and-comer. And Performer definitely fits the bill.