Another big weekend of stakes races is set, topped by the matchup of champions Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver in the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.
Oaklawn’s Saturday card also includes the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2), while Keeneland hosts the $200,000 Elkhorn (G2) and Santa Anita hosts the $200,000 Californian (G2).
With the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1) prep seasons have concluded, Saturday is a day for older horses to take center stage.
This showdown is what racing fans should love. #2 Swiss Skydiver (2-1) and #6 Monomoy Girl (1-1) are the stars in a field of six. Swiss Skydiver comes off a 2020 campaign for trainer Ken McPeek in which she won the Alabama (G1) and then beat the boys in the Preakness (G1). She also won her lone career start so far at this track in the in the Fantasy (G3), where she defeated eventual Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Shedaresthedevil. And then there is champion Monomoy Girl, who needs no introduction as one of the best fillies/mares to come down the pike with a career record of 14 wins in 16 races for trainer Brad Cox. Her career includes a long list of Grade 1 wins including the 2018 Kentucky Oaks (G1) and the 2018 and 2020 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). Monomoy Girl made her 6-year-old debut a winning one last time out in the local Bayakoa Stakes (G3), while Swiss Skydiver comes off a win in her 4-year-old debut when she rolled in the Beholder Mile (G1) at Santa Anita at a distance that was too short to be her best.
Who has the advantage in the Apple Blossom? This should come down to a two-horse race. While it’s difficult to bet against a true champion like Monomoy Girl, this could be a passing-of-the-torch race with Swiss Skydiver ready to assume the mantle of top female. Both have tactical speed and it’s difficult to poke holes in either one. Swiss Skydiver was soundly defeated by Monomoy Girl in the BC Distaff, but that wasn’t Swiss Skydiver’s best day, and she can turn the tables when she is right. Plus, Swiss Skydiver will go off at a better price.
The Play: This is a good race to just sit back and watch two excellent horses go at it. But if you must get down a bet, take Swiss Skydiver to post the mild upset. You can also box the extreme chalky exacta with Monomoy Girl, as well.
A field of eight offers a good betting race for handicappers to sink their teeth into. The morning-line favorite is #2 Express Train (5-2) for trainer John Shirreffs, coming in off a second-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) and a win before that in the San Pasqual (G2). His campaign at Santa Anita also includes a runner-up finish behind Charlatan in the Malibu (G1). The race also draws #3 Fearless (7-2), winner of the Gulfstream Park Mile (G2) for Todd Pletcher, and the close 1-2 finishers in the local prep, the $500,000 Essex Handicap, winner #1 Silver State (4-1) for Steve Asmussen, and #7 Rated R Superstar (10-1) for trainer Federico Villafranco. The deep field also includes the runners-up from the Razorback Handicap (G3), #8 Silver Prospector (10-1) for Asmussen, and the New Orleans Classic (G2) winner, #6 Owendale (7-2) for trainer Brad Cox. Express Train owns the best speed figures and the best form versus the best competition and is the horse to beat. Value can be found in the exotics, however, by picking the pace horse #4 Warrior’s Charge (6-1) to hold on for the exactas as the best, and possibly lone speed in the race for Cox.
The Play: Bet Express Train to win and box him in exactas with Warrior’s Charge. In case Warrior’s Charge is not good enough, you can also box Express Train in the exactas with Fearless, who looks like the best of the rest.
Several of the veterans in this marathon make the rounds in these distance turf races at or near 10 furlongs, which include the Sycamore (G3), Red Smith (G3), Kentucky Turf Cup (G3), McKnight (G3), and the Pan American (G2). Perhaps the best of the group is #10 Red Knight (3-1), who won last fall’s Sycamore at Keeneland for trainer Bill Mott and was second in this race in 2019. He likes this course and has been in the exacta in four of five career outings at 1 ½ miles (two wins, two seconds). This is his seasonal debut, but he has proven to run well fresh at this distance off this sort of a layoff. His Sycamore win was impressive, coming from far off a slow pace that would have favored the front runners. His 2020 speed figures at 1 1/2 miles were very good. Thanks to #6 Tide of the Sea (4-1) and #4 Epic Bromance (12-1) and perhaps others in this field, a solid pace is assured, and it will be difficult to hold off Red Knight’s late run. The other horse to beat who figures to get a great pace set-up coming from behind is the SoCal invader, #2 Say the Word (7-2) for trainer Phil D’Amato, who has been chalking up big speed figures in 1 1/2-mile races such as his win in last fall’s Northern Dancer (G1) at Woodbine, his third in the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) at Del Mar last fall, and his second in the San Luis Rey (G2) at Santa Anita last time out. If for any reason Red Knight isn’t up to the challenge in his first start back off the layoff, Say the Word is the most likely winner.
A field of five in a race that you can make a case for any of them coming out on top. It’s easier, though, to make a case for some than others, and the one to beat seems to be #5 Independence Hall for trainer Mike McCarthy with Flavien Prat aboard. Independence Hall faded late last time in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap (G1), but this distance seems more up his alley based on his third-place finish two races ago in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream, where he fell victim to Knicks Go. Earned a big speed figure, and there’s none the likes of Knicks Go entered against him. #4 Royal Ship gets Mike Smith, but seems mainly to be a turf horse, and while #3 Country Grammar does have ability, he is returning from an eight-month layoff and probably will need this race. #1 Growth Engine had his prep but seems a bit over his head up at this level of competition. That leaves #2 Magic On Tap, trained by Bob Baffert, as the logical exacta horse to use with Independence Hall. Magic On Tap came back from a 1 ½-year layoff last time in winning fashion, and while he has not yet faced this caliber of competition, he has never been worse than second in four career starts, looked good last time, and only figures to improve today in the second start off the layoff.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.