Getting excited about racing in early February is unusual for me, but I'm looking forward to Saturday's cards at Gulfstream and Santa Anita. The Donn Handicap tops a stakes-filled program in South Florida, and the return of Giacomo, last year's Kentucky Derby winner, highlights the Strub Stakes out west.
Oddly, I won't be betting on the three horses that interest me most -– Giacomo, First Samurai and Barbaro. Giacomo hasn't run since finishing up the track in the Belmont Stakes, and he looks quite vulnerable in the Strub. First Samurai, the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, appears to lay over the field in the 7?-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream. A half-hour later, another very promising 3-year-old colt, Barbaro, makes his main-track debut in the Holy Bull Stakes after starting his career 3-for-3 on turf.
Like First Samurai, Barbaro will be heavily overbet, and if he doesn't win, I'm not confident in any of his opponents. On a few rare occasions, it can be more fun to watch than to wager. But in this game the action is always the main attraction, so I selected four races to invest upon, all of them stakes.
Last week: Went 2-for-3 but the prices were skimpy. Moscow Burning and Da Stoops each won a Sunshine Millions race at Santa Anita, but each went off at 6-5. Well, at least they raised my record to 6-for-9 the past three weeks. Let's see if I can keep the run going.
4th race, Gulfstream, Grade III Old Hat Stakes (6 1/2 furlongs)
Smart N Pretty couldn't keep up last time out with front-running winner Yachats, who returns here and certainly will be favored. But Smart N Pretty should get a better pace scenario this time, with enough other speed to keep Yachats occupied early. Smart N Pretty should be tighter after her 2006 debut and could use her solid finishing punch to get the money late.
1. Smart N Pretty 2. Yachats 3. Misty Rosette
6th race, Gulfstream, Grade II Davona Dale Stakes (1 1/8 miles)
Wonder Lady Anne comes back off a 10-week layoff for the devilish Rick Dutrow, who wins 27 percent of the time in such situations. This 3-year-old filly won the 1 1/8-mile Demoiselle Stakes in her last race at Aqueduct, and I expect her to repeat here. She stalked a slow pace that day and drew away, and projected quicker fractions should make her job easier. Teammate and Bushfire look like her toughest rivals.
1. Wonder Lady Anne 2. Teammate 3. Bushfire
10th race, Gulfstream, Grade I Donn Handicap (1 1/8 miles)
On Thin Ice has been a different horse since Joe Orseno sent him 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Grade III Fayette Stakes on Oct. 29 at Keeneland. He just missed at 39-1 behind the excellent Alumni Hall, and he showed it was no fluke when he ran a career best to dominate the Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes by 5? lengths. He draws the rail and will offer bettable odds. Suave was a stunning fourth at 69-1 behind eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and his class lines make him the likely favorite. Magna Graduate isn't as accomplished but he's won three straight and is a Todd Pletcher-John Velazquez product, so he'll be bet down, too. If it's wet, and there is a chance of thunderstorms, watch out for Super Frolic.
1. On Thin Ice 2. Suave 3. Magna Graduate
7th race, Santa Anita,Grade II Strub Stakes (1 1/8 miles)
Giacomo, the 50-1 winner of the 2005 Run for the Roses, makes his 4-year-old debut in the final major prep for the West Coast's biggest race, next month's Santa Anita Handicap. Emotional support will translate into lower odds than he merits, and the gray colt is likely to need a race. I'll try to beat him with the horse that ran 20th and last in the Derby, High Limit. He's a need-to-lead type, with all four of his wins wire to wire. I think he's fast enough to clear the field from post 11, and if anyone can nurse him along on the lead and hold on late, it's the brilliant Patrick Valenzuela.
If not for the presence of the Derby winner, there wouldn't be much of a buzz for the Strub, which drew a number of solid horses but no stars. One that might be ignored is Dixie Meister, who ships in from Texas for win machine Steve Asmussen. Dixie Meister is 2-for-2 in minor stakes in Texas and Louisiana since joining Asmussen last fall, and his impressive closing fractions make him a strong exotics possibility at juicy odds.
1. High Limit 2. Dixie Meister 3. Giacomo