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Saturday provides loaded stakes menu for horse racing fans

Horseplayers already are winners this weekend with a great day of racing in store on Saturday, including three contentious races on the road to the Triple Crown and what promises to be a memorable edition of the “Big ‘Cap.”

The trio of stakes races for 3-year-olds are the $300,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Each will award 85 Kentucky Derby points on a 50-20-10-5 basis.

The San Felipe will be followed a few races later by the $400,00 “Big ‘Cap,” aka the 1¼ mile Santa Anita Handicap (Grade 1), which drew a solid cast led by the undefeated Maxfield.

The good news for Nevada horseplayers is that all four races are unaffected by the ongoing Churchill Downs contract dispute and will be available for betting. The Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe will be shown on “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports 2 at 2 p.m. TVG also will cover those races, as well as the Santa Anita Handicap, which is scheduled to go to post at 5 p.m.

The Grade 3 Gotham, run at the one-turn mile distance at the “Big A,” will kick off the 3-year-old action.

The Chad Brown-trained Highly Motivated is the 8-5 morning line favorite, even though the son of Mischief will stretch out beyond 6½ furlongs for the first time in what will be his fourth start. The linemaker sees the Bob Baffert-trained Freedom Fighter (5-2) as his main competition in the eight-horse field, as do I.

The Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, contested at 1-1/16th mile, looks like a wide-open affair.

Candy Man Rocket, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes over the track on Feb. 6, is the 2-1 favorite in the field of 12. But the Bill Mott trainee got a perfect stalking trip that day and is now drawn inside other horses whose riders will be trying to work out a similar journey.

An upset seems possible, with Hidden Stash (4-1), Helium (6-1) and Promise Keeper (8-1) appearing to be the biggest threats.

The Grade 2 San Felipe, also run at 1-1/16th mile, drew a compact field of seven, led by two Baffert-trained runners: Life Is Good (4-5) and Medina Spirit (7-2). Most intriguing upset possibility to me is the Doug O’Neill-trained The Great One (4-1).

In the Big Cap, Maxfield is the 8-5 morning line favorite based on his 5-0 record for trainer Brendan Walsh. The Godolphin homebred son of Street Sense has overcome multiple injuries en route to his 4-year-old season, but now appears to be at the top of his game as he makes his third start off a layoff.

But the winner of the Grade 3 Mineshaft Stakes at the Fair Grounds last out does not appear invincible. For one thing, he has yet to crack triple digits on the Beyer speed figure scale, while four of his foes — Independence Hall (4-1), Kiss Today Goodbye (8-1), Coastal Defense (15-1) and Express Train (3-1) — already have done so. He’s also making his first start over the Santa Anita dirt course.

I’ve been a huge fan of Maxfield ever since his breathtaking victory in the 2019 Breeders Futurity (Grade 1) at Keeneland as a 2-year-old, but my pick here is Express Train, upset winner of the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita in his most recent start. I’ll use him in exactas with Maxfield and Independence Hall if the payouts aren’t too puny.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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