By Ed McNamara
Racing in New York never ends, an eternal loop of horses running in circles around Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. Some people play it year round, and others, like me, avoid the Big A’s winter meet and look south to Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds and Tampa Bay Downs.
Forty years ago, when I was just getting into racing, I loved going to the funky old track in Queens and betting cheap claimers on frigid afternoons. I was in my element when snow was piled in the parking lot and flurries swirled. I recall driving from New Jersey the morning after a storm, hoping that somehow the track would be open. I was disappointed when I saw the “Racing Canceled Today” sign on the front gate. Maybe I should have called the track before driving 60 miles on slick roads.
My passion for cold-weather racing gradually waned, and I avoided Aqueduct during the winter. One April day at Belmont I reconnected with my early racing mentor Dave B., who loved playing the Big A’s winterized inner track.
“Where have you been, Eddie Mac?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you since October.”
“Well, I got tired of losing on $14,000 claimers,” I said, “and started concentrating on allowance and stakes races.”
His reaction: “As a gambler, you’ve turned into a Republican.”
I laughed, and he was right. Since the mid-Eighties I’ve focused on the classier thoroughbreds, which is why I don’t anticipate making many plays at Aqueduct until Wood Memorial day in early April.
Saturday’s four-stakes card, topped by the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, features the best racing you’ll see in New York until spring. Let’s see if we can hit a pick 4 to exit autumn with a flourish. I did that two years ago on Cigar Mile day, and maybe I can repeat the feat.
$250,000 Go for Wand Handicap (G3), 1 mile, 3 and up fillies and mares
I’ll use the surging Lady Rocket (2), defending champ Sharp Starr (7) and California shipper Bella Vita (3).
Sharp Starr never has run out of the money in six starts at Aqueduct (2-2-2). One caveat: Both her wins this year came on a sloppy track, and there’s no rain in the forecast.
Lady Rocket has never been beyond 7 furlongs, but Irad Ortiz, Jr. rides for Brad Cox, so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the elite combination. The 4-year-old has the best recent form, winning three of her last four with strong figures. The defeat came against standout sprinter Bella Sofia, a second after a stumble at the start.
Simon Callaghan is winning with 20% of his shippers. Bella Vita never has gone a mile but has excellent company lines (Gamine, Ce Ce). Gamine was the beaten favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, which Ce Ce won.
Bella Vita closed in 12 seconds to take a 7-furlong stakes for California-breds. She won by a length over Warren’s Showtime, who finished in the money for the 15th consecutive time.
$250,000 Remsen Stakes (G2), 1 1/8 miles, 2-year-olds
Nobody in here has run 9 furlongs, and only longshot Mr Jefferson has been around two turns on dirt. Time to scrutinize bloodlines for some educated guessing, which pared the ticket down to Mo Donegal (1), Judge Davis (3) and Zandon (7).
Todd Pletcher’s Mo Donegal overcame a slow start to break his maiden at 1 1/16 miles, and his pedigree (Uncle Mo out of a Pulpit mare) says he’ll stay longer. Same goes for Zandon, who surprised Chad Brown with an easy debut win at 6 furlongs. Brown said he’s always thought of the Upstart colt as a distance horse, and the blazing Joel Rosario rides, another plus. But can he win stretching out from 6 to 9 furlongs?
Judge Davis, trained by Shug McGaughey, was an even third in the mile Nashua behind Bob Baffert’s 2-for-3 Rockefeller.
$250,000 Demoiselle Stakes (G2), 1 1/8 miles, 2-year-old fillies
Like the Remsen, lots of guesswork is necessary here. I’ll use four — Nostalgic (4), Nest (5), Tap the Faith (6) and Magic Circle (7).
Nostalgic came flying late to win her 1 1/16-mile debut by 7 3/4 lengths for Bill Mott, who confidently throws her immediately into stakes company. She’ll be a price and could move forward.
Magic Circle finished a neck ahead of third-place Nest in a tight finish behind stakes winner Gerrymander, so if you like one, you have to use the other. Nest, trained by Pletcher, is by Curlin out of an A.P. Indy mare, which is as good as distance pedigrees get. Tap the Faith won his debut at a mile with a 24-second final furlong.
The Remsen offers 10,4,2 and 1 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the first four finishers, and the Demoiselle does the same for the Kentucky Oaks.
$750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (G1), 3-year-olds and up
The Cigar has four worth using — Following Sea (1) and Americanrevolution (3), both trained by Pletcher, along with Independence Hall (5) and Ginobili (6). I’ll fade Code of Honor, whose only win in four starts this year was in a weak Grade 3.
“It’s always a big race and it’s the last Grade 1 of the year,” said Pletcher, who’s won it four times. “I’m not surprised that it’s attracted a nice field.”
Following Sea ran a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint after beating old warrior Firenze Fire and chasing 3-year-old stars Jackie’s Warrior, Life Is Good, Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun. Stablemate Americanrevolution, a New York-bred, is 4-for-5 this year, with a respectable third in the Pennsylvania Derby.
Independence Hall is a horse for course with stakes wins at Aqueduct in his only two mile tries. He’s at his best from 6 1/2 to 8 furlongs, and he’s training sharply at Churchill Downs. Ginobili ran a creditable second behind Life Is Good in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
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.