By Ed McNamara
Summer’s finally here, and with it comes the year’s best racing.
Saratoga, everybody’s favorite, opens July 15, and sunny Del Mar, host of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup, starts the next day. Time to add firepower to that online account and prepare for pari-mutuel battle.
Inevitably, there’s a slack period at Churchill Downs after Derby weekend, and besides Stephen Foster Preview Day on May 29, I wasn’t excited about any of its cards since. But The World’s Most Legendary Racetrack is back in the spotlight Saturday, when it ends its spring-summer meet with a dynamite program featuring seven stakes, topped by the Grade 2 Stephen Foster. The undercard has two Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” races, the Fleur de Lis for fillies and mares and the Wise Dan on the turf.
Let’s see if we can make some money with a pick 3 on the last three races. The suggested investment is $56 on a $2 base bet, using four horses in the first leg, singling odds-on Maxfield in the Stephen Foster, and spreading with seven 2-year-olds in a wide-open turf finale.
Set Piece (1) moves into graded company for Brad Cox after winning two minor stakes at Churchill. His speed figures are good, he’s a strong closer, and he’s 3-for-4 over the course.
Somelikeithotbrown (3) comes off a gritty win in the Grade 2 Dinner Party on the Preakness undercard. The New York-bred won his last three on firm ground at a mile and a sixteenth, so the distance and course conditions suit him. He’ll set the pace or be near it, and the question is whether he’ll hang on against a group better than the one he beat at Pimlico.
Ride a Comet (7) probably will be a better price than he should be after running ninth in the Grade 1 Turf Classic on Derby Day. He was in way over his head against standouts Domestic Spending and Colonel Liam, so throw that race out. The time before he ran second in the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile, so he fits well here. He’s 5-for-9 overall on grass, and 5-for-6 when it’s not a Grade 1. I’ll bet him to win and box him with Set Piece, Somelikeithotbrown and Field Pass in exactas. A major player.
Field Pass (8) ran only two duds in his past 10 races, both at distances too far for him (1 3/16 and 1 3/8 miles). In the other eight, he has three wins and never lost by more than 3 1/4 lengths. He’s the “other” Mike Maker, along with Somelikeithotbrown, and throwing out a Maker horse in a grass stakes can be hazardous. He’s 4-for-4 in the money on Churchill’s turf, and I won’t be surprised if he makes it 5-for-5.
Maxfield (8) is 6-for-7 lifetime, 3-for-3 in Louisville, with his only loss coming in this year’s Santa Anita Handicap, when he found 1 1/4 miles too far. He’s 3-for-3 at Churchill, and although this is his first try at 1 1/8 miles, he’s been dominant five times at 1 1/16. He catches a so-so field, and I can’t make a case for anybody else, so I’ll stand alone with him.
If we get through the first two legs, we’ll be alive with more than half of the 13-horse field. If form holds, so will a lot of other tickets, so root for the biggest price in this one. The numbers: 1,5,6,7,8,10,13.
I’m leaving out the two horses entered by Mark Casse, who trained the Hall of Fame mare for whom this race is named. Is this a karmic insult for which I will be punished? Neither Fairchild nor Commander’s Palace looks that good on paper, but you never can tell. If the ticket is alive, maybe I’ll make a small win bet on each Casse just for insanity insurance.
Invincible Gal (1) has seconditis (runner-up four times in six career starts), but she has license to improve off a fast-closing second in a Grade 3 at 7 furlongs. She lost to impressive runners in her last two, and maybe she’s set for a breakthrough.
Navratilova (5) is a tough closing sprinter, and her pedigree (Medaglia d’Oro out of a Smart Strike mare) says a mile should be no problem. Her only turf route was in her second start, and she wasn’t going to beat subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Aunt Pearl that day. She deserves another chance.
Bullseye Beauty (6) had an excuse (bad start) in her only time out of the exacta in four grass tries. She surged late last time to win at 5 1/2, and a move forward would be no shock.
Adventuring (7) will be a rarity — a reasonable price for a Cox horse. The reason: Her too-bad-to-be-true dud on dirt (eased) in the Black-Eyed Susan. She’s never tried grass, but Cox gets 23% winners first time on grass. Her breeding (Pioneerof the Nile, Hard Spun mare) says she should take to it, so I’m using her defensively. She cruised in her only start on synthetic, and often that implies grass ability.
Tobys Heart (8) was off the board in two tries beyond 5 1/2 furlongs, so she may not want two turns. But she looked like a world beater closing in sprints, and if Javier Castellano can relax her early and pounce, she could be passing them all late.
New Boss (10) is quick, 2-for-5 with two seconds on grass and led throughout her only turf route. She can set fast fractions, going 22 or 22 1/5 for a quarter, and that speed always is dangerous. Her only flop on grass was on a rain-softened course, and it should be firm Saturday.
Arm Candy (13) has the worst post, but her flying finish last time in the Hilltop at Pimlico almost got there. She was third, beaten a neck, after being ninth, 17 lengths back, after being bumped at the start. She was six wide entering the stretch and made up 9 1/4 lengths with a final quarter in 23 seconds. She’s live and should be a big price.
And good luck.
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.