By Ed McNamara
As I write this, the afternoon temperature on Long Island is 18 degrees, with winds of 15 mph making it feel like 4. If not for the seemingly endless pandemic, I would have strongly considered a January vacation in Florida. Winter is by far the best time to visit the Sunshine State.
The last time I was down there was in late January 2020 for the Pegasus World Cup, and that was very enjoyable. The weather was outstanding — sunny but not too warm — a glorious 180 from the cold and gloom of the Northeast. Despite betting small I turned a profit of $350 over the weekend, and the barbecue in the paddock the night before the Pegasus featured the best racetrack food I’d had in years.
It’s been almost two years since I was on track for a major race. Six weeks after the 2020 Pegasus, COVID-19 became a worldwide menace, and throughout the New Abnormal I’ve been following racing from my couch. Then again, I have to admit I don’t miss airport hassles or the traffic jams on race day.
This year’s Pegasus, featuring certain Horse of the Year Knicks Go and the brilliant Life Is Good, isn’t until Jan. 29. For the next two weeks Gulfstream will be serving appetizers. Saturday will mark the ninth edition of the Sunshine Millions, with two stakes restricted to Florida-breds, and two more on Jan. 22.
Considering the weather where I live, focusing on anything connected with sunshine brightens my outlook. Let’s see if I can find some winners.
Shamrocket (3) makes his main-track debut in his 22nd start, and ordinarily I wouldn’t look twice at a horse with this profile. But there are four things in this solid turfer’s favor: He has a strong dirt pedigree (by Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist out of a Storm Cat mare), he’s getting serious class relief, the distance should be no problem, and Todd Pletcher is deadly off layoffs of 46 to 90 days.
Big Venezuela (2) is the only member of the field to have won at 1 1/8 miles. Sir Ollie (1) never has been two turns but he’s 2-for-4 at Gulfstream.
Not a stakes, but an intriguing handicapping puzzle with some quality grass horses who have been competitive with familiar names (Du Jour, Casa Creed, Public Sector). Mira Mission (5) is 2-for-2 on Gulfstream’s turf and 3-for-7 overall on the surface. His close second to three-time stakes winner Public Sector stands out.
Winfromwithin (1) makes his first start since running third in the Grade 2 American Turf on Kentucky Derby weekend. That was his first loss in three grass tries. Proven Strategies (3) comes off a four-month layoff for Mark Casse. He’s 0-for-4 since October 2020 but is a first-time gelding, an angle that often produces dramatic improvement.
Legal Deal (7) is 3-for-7 at the distance and a horse for course (6-for-13 at Gulfstream). He’s won two of his last four and can sit just off what should be a hot pace. Pudding (2) turns back from 7 furlongs and can stalk and fire, but he’s lost four in a row while finishing behind Legal Deal and Gatsby (5), who also could sit a nice stalking trip. He has three wins in Hallandale but is in a 1-for-8 slump. Some positives: He fell short by a total of only 2 1/4 lengths in his last three.
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.