By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Memorial Day weekend is
traditionally a big one in U.S. horse racing, and this year is no exception.
More than 50 stakes are slated to take place from May 28-31, including a trio
of Grade 1 events on Sunday at Santa Anita.
We’re bound to see a bevy of
high-class horses take center stage, and it’s hard to know where to begin in
analyzing the action. So I’ll just dive in and highlight a handful of horses I
expect to see in the winner’s circle this week.
Belmont Park, Race 3: Allowance Optional Claiming: #2
Happy Saver (3-5)
The undefeated Happy Saver
went 4-for-4 as a three-year-old last season, wrapping up his perfect campaign
with a determined victory in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). I loved
the way the son of Super Saver saved ground behind a slow pace, then forged
through an opening along the rail to defeat future Dubai World Cup (G1) winner
Mystic Guide by three-quarters of a length.
Happy Saver hasn’t run in 7
1/2 months, but trainer Todd Pletcher strikes at a 29% rate with horses returning
from breaks of 90 days or more, so there’s no reason to think Happy Saver will
be particularly rusty in his first start back. He’s the most accomplished horse
in Friday’s small field and figures to sit a perfect trip racing on or near a
slow pace, so I’ll be surprised if Happy Saver fails to come back a winner.
Penn National, Race 4: Penn Mile (G2): #3 Annex (9-5)
There’s no shortage of speed
entered in the Penn Mile, with #2
Original (8-1), #5 The King Cheek (12-1),
#6 Sibelius (10-1), and #7 Outadore (8-5) all capable of
setting or pressing the pace. This could prove detrimental to the chances of
Outadore, a multiple stakes-winning sprinter who has faltered in two starts
running one mile.
In contrast, a fast pace
would suit Annex just fine. The Bill Mott trainee unleashed strong late rallies
to win his first three starts at Gulfstream Park, including narrow triumphs in
the Palm Beach Stakes and Cutler Bay Stakes.
He subsequently misfired in the American Turf (G2) at Churchill Downs,
coming home eighth while failing to produce his typical rally. But the Penn
Mile field looks like an easier spot, and the prospect of a fast pace stamps
Annex as a major threat while adding blinkers for Hall of Fame trainer Bill
Belmont Park, Race 3: Allowance: #4 First Captain (6-5)
There are few horses I’m
more excited about these days than First Captain, who might just be a monster
in the making for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. McGaughey isn’t known
for saddling ready-to-win first-time starters, yet First Captain fired off a
huge effort in his April 24 debut sprinting seven furlongs at Belmont Park, rallying
boldly with an :11.95 final furlong to win by just under a length.
This effort is all the more
impressive when you consider how First Captain is bred to thrive running long.
He’s a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of the A.P. Indy mare
America, winner of the Turnback the Alarm Handicap (G3). Racing 1 1/4 miles
should be right up First Captain’s alley, so I strongly suspect Saturday’s
allowance race will turn into a steppingstone toward the Travers (G1) at
Saratoga. Not only do I believe First Captain can win the Travers, I think he
can develop into the champion three-year-old male of 2021.
Santa Anita, Race 8: Triple Bend (G2): #5 Eight Rings
Following a productive
two-year-old season highlighted by a blowout victory in the American Pharoah
(G1), Eight Rings failed to factor in two widely spaced starts at three, finishing
fifth in the Bachelor Stakes and seventh in the H. Allen Jerkens (G1).
But Eight Rings has been
given 10 months off and is eligible to come back fresh and fit for a big effort
in the Triple Bend. He’s been cranking out fast workouts in preparation for his
return, including a bullet five furlongs from the Santa Anita starting gate in
:58 flat. Furthermore, he’s drawn the outside post in a five-horse field,
affording hot jockey Flavien Prat plenty of options for working out a clean
The fact Eight Rings has
stayed in training for a four-year-old campaign suggests Hall of Fame trainer
Bob Baffert is confident the son of Empire Maker is better than his sophomore
season suggests. Throw in the fact Prat and Baffert have gone 6-for-12 (50%) together
over the last two months, and I think the stage is set for a winning effort
from Eight Rings.
Now it’s your turn! Who do
you like this weekend?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as “Keelerman”) is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.