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.
Ellis Starr’s Tampa Bay Derby analysis
Candy Man Rocket is the horse the other 11 will have to defeat to win. Candy Man Rocket proved his nine length victory in January was no fluke when winning by a shorter margin, just one length, in the Sam F. Davis Stakes last month. Although earning a 90 Equibase Speed Figure in the Sam F. Davis as compared to a 94 when winning a sprint before that, Candy Man Rocket did so very professionally when stalking pace setter Boca Boy from the start then taking over while three paths wide on the turn and holding off Nova Rags and Hidden Stash, who is running back in this race as well. Being as it is likely Boca Boy will want the lead from the start as he’s had in his last two races on dirt, and being as it is also likely Promise Keeper will have to go fast from the 11 post to get good position from the start, Candy Man Rocket will have a great stalking position under jockey Junior Alvarado from the ground saving three post. Although there are a couple of horses which have earned higher figures in their most recent starts, one of those (King of Dreams – 96) was on turf and the other (Helium – 93) was around one turn and more than four months ago, potentially giving Candy Man Rocket an edge with which he can win his second stakes race in a row.
That being said, King of Dreams has an upset chance if he can transfer his turf form to dirt. The 96 figure he earned winning at this distance on turf at the end of January is the best figure earned by any horse in this field. He did lead from start to finish in that race but given he does not wear blinkers I do not believe he is a need-the-lead type similar to Boca Boy or Promise Keeper and so he too could take up a stalking position in the early stages. Getting the services of Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Sammy Camacho is a good sign, as is the fact trainer that Juan Avila just saddled the 50/1 upset winner in the Davona Dale Stakes last weekend as well as the 49/1 upset winner in the 2020 Tampa Bay Derby, King Guillermo. Considering the dam is a daughter of A.P. Indy who has produced three dirt route winners from seven other foals, I have little doubt King of Dreams can transition successfully from turf to dirt and run a competitive race.
Hidden Stash was far back in eighth in the early stages of the Sam F. Davis last month, which is much farther back than he had been in his previous two route races last fall, both of which he won, earning 87 and 89 figures. Following two months off, Hidden Stash returned in the Sam F. Davis and the early pace was much faster than he experienced previously, which helps to explain why he was farther back than usual. Nevertheless, with three-sixteenths of a mile to go, Hidden Stash swung to the four path and commenced a rally from eighth to third, just a neck from the runner-up. Watching the replay, I note Hidden Stash was ridden out after the wire giving him a bit of an education in passing the top two finishers even though the race was over. Being a son of hot sire Constitution, whose son Tiz the Law won 2020 Florida Derby, I have little doubt Hidden Stash fits at this level. With veteran jockey Rafael Bejarano coming in from Kentucky to ride and with logical improvement in his second start off the layoff, Hidden Stash must be given a lot of respect as a contender to win the Tampa Bay Derby.
In spite of the potential to get into a hot early pace battle with Boca Boy, Promise Keeper is intriguing enough to consider as having a chance in this race. Also a son of Constitution, Promise Keeper stretched out to a mile for the first time last month in his second career start and dominated by five lengths in a field of 11, earning a 90 figure. His dam, the Curlin mare Mira Alta, produced stakes winner Wicked Awesome so there’s a lot of quality in his pedigree. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden again by Luis Saez, if Promise Keeper can get the early lead over Boca Boy from his outside post and not expend too much energy he has potential to get confident and possibly hold off the challenges of Candy Man Rocket, King of Dreams and Hidden Stash.
The rest of the field, all whom have the ability to compete effectively in this race, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Awesome Gerry (86), Boca Boy (84), Helium (93), Moonlite Strike (93), My Liberty (87), Sittin on Go (91), Super Strong (82) and Unbridled Honor (85).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.