Week of April 29, 2013
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

As April begins to transition into May, major tracks like Belmont, Churchill, Hollywood and Woodbine open for the season, and anticipation builds for the upcoming classics.

The spring meet at Keeneland wrapped up on Friday, but the final two days were not without excitement as leading rider Joel Rosario rode both winners in the 12-furlong graded turf stakes. On Thursday, he hit the board in all but one race in which he rode, including five winners, led by 18-1 longshot Strathnaver who upset the Grade 3 Bewitch Stakes. The 4-year-old filly had a mediocre handicap career in Great Britain, but, switched to American-based trainer Graham Motion, won her U.S. debut earlier in this year—and now has the prerequisite black-type worthy of her Grade 1-placed dam River Belle. Last-out Grade 3 Orchid winner Regalo Mia, who led briefly before giving in to Strathnaver, finished second nearly a length in front of another longshot, Strathnaver’s stablemate Qushchi. The post-time favorite Gathering was undone by the hot early pace, fading to finish ninth in the 11-horse field.

Rosario continued his winning ways on Friday with three more victories (incidentally, matched by jockey Rosie Napravnik). In the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes, a much more sensible early pace was set by favorite Ioya Bigtime, but he had nothing left when the real running started and faded to ninth. Instead, it was the lightly-heralded Dark Cove—a 6-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro claimed for $50,000 last April—who swept to the lead and drew off to win by over four lengths. Former dirt runner Side Road appears to have found his niche going long on turf; Gary Stevens angled him out perfectly to get second (at just over 23-1 odds), a mere nose in front of Sky Blazer.

Nearly all of the week’s other graded stakes action was contested at one mile, or 8 furlongs, including the Grade 3 Derby Trial which was won by one-turn specialist Forty Tales. For that reason (his distance limitations), the Todd Pletcher trainee is unlikely to contest the Kentucky Derby despite earning the final 20 wildcard points available on the Road to the Derby. A virtual co-favorite in the race, the much ballyhooed Titletown Five ran with the early leaders Zee Bros and Tour Guide, but the hot pace ultimate did him in, as the D. Wayne Lukas trainee finished just out of the money in fourth. Twice Grade 1-placed last year (including a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile), Capo Bastone hasn’t demonstrated that same promise this year, but did finish a surging neck behind Forty Tales. Three lengths back in third was 21-1 longshot Ruler of Love, a Joan Scott-trained colt whose speed figures have only improved since making the move from turf to dirt.

At Belmont, the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes went from a field of eight down to just five starters after the scratches of Mordi’s Miracle, Pants on Fire and Winslow Homer. Interestingly, it was the three grays in the race that set the blistering early pace, but only one of them, even-money favorite Cross Traffic, battled on to the end, giving way late to lose by a head to 7-year-old Flat Out who remains undefeated in four starts at Big Sandy. It was over 11 lengths back to third-place finisher Rattlesnake Bridge. The final time for the 8-furlong event (1:32.99) was just a tick off the track record (1:32.24), and certainly appears to have set up both top finishers for the May 27 Grade 1 Met Mile.

Later on Saturday, at Lone Star Park, trainer Steve Asmussen hit the exacta in the Grade 3 Texas Mile with Master Rick and Prayer for Relief. The latter colt, a multiple Grade 2 winner (West Virginia Derby, Super Derby) who hasn’t tasted victory since September 2011, looked the victor as he went to the lead coming out of the final turn, but his stablemate Master Rick swept around him to snatch the win. Early front-runner Good Lord held on for third.

Ten turf milers went to post in the Grade 3 San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate, including last year’s winner Hudson Landing. However, in a scintillating last-to-first run, it was John Sadler-trained import Tigah who won by a neck over early front-runner Summer Hit. Gallant Son, who finished third in last year’s race, repeated that performance this year, finishing a neck in front of former Argentine Grade 1 winner Grand Berry. Down the coast, in Sunday’s Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap at Hollywood, filly and mare turf milers took center stage, with last year’s Grade 2 Yellow Ribbon victress Halo Dolly getting the win with a nicely-controlled ride by Rafael Bejarano. 14-1 longshot Long Face was 1-1/2 lengths back, only a half-length ahead of fast-closing favorite Moone’s My Name.

Opening weekend at Woodbine featured sprinters in the non-graded Jacques Cartier Stakes on Saturday, and the best story was 6-year-old Essence Hit Man making a triumphant return to the track. Not only did he win this race for a record-setting third consecutive year, but he did so in his typical front-running fashion, never seriously threatened as he found another gear and pulled away to win by four lengths. The final time for the 6-furlong race (1:08.83) was just off the track record (1:08.16) he set in 2011’s race. Jockey Justin Stein aboard the runner-up Bear Tough Tiger lodged a foul for interference which was denied, leaving his mount in second, with Michelle Nehei-trained Upgrade a fast-closing third.

On Sunday filly and mare sprinters went postward at Woodbine, in the Grade 3 Whimsical Stakes. Untried on artificial surfaces, 5-year-old mare Sisterly Love looked an unlikely favorite, especially given her back-tracking form in her past two races. Still, the Mark Casse trainee would be cutting back in distance, so bettors took a shot. Recent Bob Baffert trainee Distracting (now in the barn of Josie Carroll) had good dirt-sprint form in California, so she went off a narrow second-choice behind Sisterly Love. Unfortunately, handicappers should have stuck with the more proven Woodbine fillies, as the top three finishers were among the longest shots in the field. At nearly 15-1, winner Acting Naughty was kicked around the claiming ranks from the beginning of her juvenile career until last year when she was an unlikely runner-up in the prestigious Jammed Lovely Stakes at Woodbine; she ended last season just losing an allowance race won by the Grade 3 Ontario Colleen runner-up Evil Kitten—a filly she had beaten in the Jammed Lovely. At nearly 62-1, Starship Universe had never run on Polytrack prior to the Whimsical—and the 4-year-old Mineshaft filly entered this contest first-off being claimed for $30,000 in a Gulfstream turf sprint. Her runner-up effort was exceptional. At nearly 12-1, third-place finisher Katie Get Excited had strong Woodbine form, including a Grade 3-placing in the Selene Stakes last May, but bettors ignored her, most likely due to her poor fifth-place finish in last weekend’s Sugar Maple Stakes at Charles Town—her first dirt race, and one that she lost when she failed to break with the field. Back with regular rider Justin Stein, Katie Get Excited made a gallant late run to get up for third. As you can imagine, the exotics payoffs were extraordinary for this race: the $2 exactor (exacta) paid a whopping $673.40, while the $2 triactor (trifecta) paid $7,296.30.

The upcoming week is all about the 3-year-old classics—the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. However, the rich undercard both days is well-worth watching, so sit back and enjoy! We’ll be back next Monday with a round-up of all the key races.

Keep up with all the racing commentary and news at Raceday 360 Wire!

Last Week’s Races

2013 Bewitch Stakes Replay
Strathnaver pulls a big upset.

Video courtesy of Keeneland

2013 Elkhorn Stakes Replay
Dark Cove pulls away.

Video courtesy of Keeneland

2013 Westchester Stakes Replay
Flat Out returns to form.

Video courtesy of Partymanners

2013 Wilshire Handicap Replay
Halo Dolly kicks off graded stakes season at Hollywood Park.

Video courtesy of Hollywood Park

2013 Whimsical Stakes Replay
Acting Naughty and Starship Universe provide a longshot exacta!

Video courtesy of Woodbine

Download Brisnet.com Results Charts
2013 Bewitch Stakes Chart
2013 Derby Trial Stakes Chart
2013 Elkhorn Stakes Chart
2013 San Francisco Mile Stakes Chart
2013 Texas Mile Stakes Chart
2013 Westchester Stakes Chart
2013 Wilshire Handicap Chart
2013 Whimsical Stakes Chart

Check probable starters at Horse Racing Nation’s Stakes Tracker

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet