By Ed McNamara
The trees are budding out and the flowers are up, even in the unseasonably chilly Northeast. Pleasant sights, especially in a disease-ravaged world, but to horseplayers they’re just Mother Nature’s window dressing.
To us, nothing beats watching clods of dirt being kicked up in the big race on the first Saturday in May. Finally, two weeks after being deserted on Derby Day, Churchill Downs will come alive. At last it feels like spring.
As communications director Darren Rogers said: “We’re really looking forward to getting back up and running on Saturday.”
We all are.
The mother ship of American racing will begin an abbreviated, 26-day meet with an 11-race card starting at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. There will be no spectators, which will feel weird to the trainers, riders and grooms but won’t matter if you’re playing from home. We still don’t know when many tracks, including Belmont Park, will open, but nobody will be thinking about that when the post parade for the first race passes beneath the Twin Spires.
“We’re in the midst of an unprecedented year,” said Mike Ziegler, Churchill’s executive director of racing. “There are a lot of moving parts and there are still a lot of unanswered questions, including who will be running where and when.”
And, now we can add Santa Anita to the mix. The track was given the OK to re-open by the Los Angeles County Health Department, and will start racing on Friday.
But back to Churchill. For about 5½ hours Saturday, that nagging uncertainty will fade away. As trainer Greg Foley, a native Kentuckian, said: “We’re so glad to be coming home.”
The card drew 162 entries, including Monomoy Girl, 2018’s champion 3-year-old filly. Many horses with superior resumes are coming off long layoffs. Will they be ready to handle less classy runners with a recency edge? There’s no stakes race but plenty of full fields that could produce big payoffs, especially in the slew of multi-race wagers.
I’ll focus on the pick 3 starting in the ninth race — two very tricky 7-furlong events and a 5½-furlong turf dash. I needed Tylenol after going through each field three times, trying to identify the top contenders. It wasn’t easy, so I’ll be spreading and hoping for prices.
Complicating matters is the possibility of a wet track. The extended forecast called for steady overnight rain into Saturday, with a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon.
I’m suggesting a $60 investment on a 50-cent base bet. The numbers: 1,2,5,11,12 with 1,2,4,5,8,11 with 3,4,8,10.
And good luck.
This one is a hodgepodge of older horses who are 1-for-life and 3-year-olds with room to improve. I pared down my ticket to five, and that may not be enough. Well, you can’t use them all.
Patrol (No. 1) won his debut at 6½ furlongs, a good sign, then ran a throwout ninth on turf for Mark Casse. Adhhar (2) is 1-for-5, taking a $30,000 maiden claimer, but he’s a trainer play because Tom Amoss wins 39 percent second off the claim. He turns back after a decent third closing at 1 1/16 miles against an $80,000 group.
Sacred Oath (5), a strong finisher, goes for Robertino Diodoro, who led the Oaklawn meet and is 24 percent first time off the claim. Smile Brian (11) is 1-for-12 but 8-for-12 in the money, a teaser with some positives. He’s run well three times at 7 furlongs, and Graham Motion is strong off the layoff. Admire (12), the likely favorite by default, gets Brisnet’s top rating even though he’s lost seven in a row.
Got all that? I’m still confused. Onward.
Here’s another brain teaser, with one-win young fillies going up and down in class.
Mo City (1) and Portrait (2) have been competitive in stakes. Joysome (4), off since October, has been working brilliantly at Keeneland. Miss T Too (5) just broke her maiden by leading throughout a mile at Gulfstream.
Four Graces (8) won her top-figure debut at 7 furlongs at Gulfstream, then regressed at 8-5 odds. A rebound would be no shock. Aurelia Garland (11) has been off since wiring her debut by five lengths last May for Wesley Ward. Ian Wilkes trains her now, and standout Jose Ortiz rides. Not impossible.
Fair Grounds shipper Call On Mischief (3) is a strong closer in a race packed with speed. She finished in less than 6 seconds in two grass tries at the distance. Short-priced Karak (4) has the best early foot for Wesley Ward. Fashionable Lady (8) was a course-and-distance winner at 32-1 in her first race last June but hasn’t raced since. That day she beat Fly So Pretty (10), idle since November. She’s a stakes-winner for Mark Casse and 2-for-3 in grass sprints.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.