Eight older runners will head postward in Monday’s 58th running of the Razorback Handicap (GIII), led to the gate by Winchell Thoroughbreds, Three Chimneys Farm and Besilu Stables’ Grade I winner Gun Runner, who is making his 2017 debut and first start since winning the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs. The talented son of Candy Ride had initially been expected to start in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park last month, but the quarantine due to the EVH1 outbreak at his home base of Fair Grounds made that start problematic, so he shows up here in his seasonal debut instead.
The 1 1/16-mile Razorback, which is a traditional prep for the Oaklawn Handicap (GI) held later in the meeting, is one of the few actual handicaps left on the modern racing calendar, as many are switching to sweepstakes classification, and has traditionally drawn top fields to produce outstanding winners, including heroes from the past like Lil E. Tee, Opening Verse, Temperence Hill and Cox’s Ridge.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ early favorite Gun Runner spent 2016 as one of the better 3-year-olds in his crop, thanks to a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (GI) after wins in both the Risen Star Stakes (GII) and Louisiana Derby (GII). And he spent the second half of 2016 picking up big checks while unable to earn the big win until his 2 ½-length frontrunning score in the Clark late in the year. With runners like Arrogate waiting for spots later on the calendar, Gun Runner has found a race where he can build some confidence and show he may be a horse to be reckoned with in the older handicap division this year. He has a tactical running style that will help him if he choses to let a rival set the pace; and he’s got regular rider Florent Geroux back aboard. The Steve Asmussen-trained runner has looked pretty good in the mornings all winter long and, though he’ll be a short price despite the inside post, his best puts him squarely in the winner’s circle.
Blue Tone ships in from California for trainer Bob Hess Jr. off a nice wire-to-wire score in the San Gabriel Stakes (GIII) in early January, a race originally scheduled for the turf. Though his last win was at nine furlongs, he more than enjoys this 1 1/16-mile distance (7-3-2-1) and has kept company with some classy runners in the past, including Midnight Storm and Masochistic, among others. While it seems like he prefers a frontrunning trip, he has shown some stalking ability in the past and he may need it in here. He owns some solid figures that place him right in the hunt for a win and having local hot jockey Jose Ortiz in the irons won’t hurt. His best makes him dangerous.
Don Von Hemel sends out Toby Keith’s Dream Walkin Farms homebred Smack Smack off four straight second-place finishes in non-graded stakes company, which followed a pair of stakes wins, including last year’s Cornhusker Handicap (GIII) at Prairie Meadows. This consistent son of Closing Argument hasn’t ever won at Oaklawn, but he has four runner-up finishes and has been in the money in eight of 13 starts at the distance. He may be a touch below the top runner here class-wise, but he’s a warrior and has worked hard for every penny of the $955,430 he’s earned.
Hawaakom has kept some pretty tough company throughout his 32-race career and races here off a win in the Louisiana Stakes last out. The Fair Grounds shipper likes the distance (16-7-3-2) and is a winner of one of three starts over this main track. His fifth-place finish behind Gun Runner in the Clark late last year is better than it looks and his numbers overall (speed, pace and class) suggest his best performance makes him competitive for a piece. He’ll like a decent pace in front of him, so all jockey Miguel Mena may need to do is find clear running room in the lane in order to hit the board.
Local runner Domain’s Rap certainly likes Oaklawn, judging by his five wins in seven starts, and this 1 1/16-mile distance (17-6-6-2), but he’s been productive in mostly allowance/optional claiming races and non-graded stakes. His numbers indicate he’s a good bet to put on an exotics ticket.
Chief of Staff finished behind rival Domain’s Rap in his last two starts after spending the majority of his career in California and then being shipped east to the care of Jack Van Berg for a 2017 campaign. While the 5-year-old California-bred son of Warrior’s Reward has had a decent career so far, it has mostly come in the lower optional claiming/allowance ranks. He did finish 16 ¼ length behind division leader Arrogate last summer in an allowance race, if that’s any indication of how he fits in here.
Dazzling Gem finished a nice second behind Hawaakom in the Louisiana Stakes last out and also ships in from Fair Grounds. He’s really only finished poorly once in his nine-race career and was even holding his own on the Triple Crown Trail ever so briefly last year. He just seems like he’s best suited to the non-graded stakes ranks at least when up against horses like Gun Runner and Blue Tone.
Goats Town carries some nice connection in owner/breeder Calumet Farm and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, but he’ll need a lot more than his connections to have a say in a larger share of the purse.