This Saturday is the biggest day of the winter coast to coast.
On the West Coast at The Great Race Place, the 80th running of the Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1) anchors a five-stakes program that also includes the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1T), the Triple Bend (G1), and the San Felipe (G2), as well as a $1 million guaranteed late pick four.
On Florida's west coast, the 37th running of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) is the final leg of an all-stakes pick five on the richest day of racing ever at Tampa Bay Downs.
Meanwhile, in the heartland, the 30th running of the Honey Bee (G3) at Oaklawn Park attracted 11 sophomore fillies vying for 85 qualifying points (50-20-10-5) to the Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Here are some quick takes and multi-race wager A-B-C rankings on a few of the biggest races:
San Felipe (SA, race 5, 2 PT): This 1 1/16-mile race at Santa Anita Park offering 85 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) was left out of the late pick four. It seems plainly obvious that of the seven 3-year-olds entered, the main protagonists are Mastery (#4), Gormley (#5) and Iliad (#7).
Mastery swept three starts impressively last fall for Bob Baffert, climaxed by a lengthy triumph in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). Note, however, that Irap, the runner-up, while subsequently graded-stakes placed again in the Robert B. Lewis (G3), remains a maiden.
Gormley has had some time off since an enervating battle to win the Sham (G3) by a head over the highly regarded American Anthem back on Jan. 7.
The three main contenders have the same early-pace running style. Gormely has an edge in terms of two-turn experience, with three such races under his belt, and is battle-tested after prevailing in that highly rated renewal of the Sham.
A - 5
B - 4, 6
Santa Anita Handicap (SA. Race 10, 5 PT): It's striking that many of the nine entrants are either in over their heads or questionable on dirt.
Even 10-time winner Midnight Storm (#1) falls into the latter category, as his only victory on a dry dirt track came against maidens in 2014. Be that as it may, he has been in career-best form and looks loose on the lead from the rail.
Coming off a solid second-place finish to Arrogate in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1), Shaman Ghost is obviously the horse to beat, but if Midnight Storm is able to set up shop on an easy lead, Shaman Ghost may have to alter his running style to keep the pacesetter in his sights.
Isotherm (#4) is ostensibly out of his element on dirt, but the San Marcos (G2T) winner will stay the trip, and it's worth mentioning he was only a 2-year-old for both of his dirt races, including the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and he was not running on Lasix at the time.
A - 3
B - 1
C - 4, 5, 9
Florida Oaks (Tam, race 9, 4:25 ET): In the middle of the all-stakes pick five, and the first leg of a late pick four, this 1 1/16-mile turf race marks the seasonal debut for both La Coronel (#5), the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T), and Daddys Lil Darling (#4), winner of the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) and runner-up in the Darley Alcidiades Stakes (G1) and Golden Rod Stakes (G2) last fall.
La Coronel clearly rates the edge over Daddys Lil Darling, who has never been on grass and is likely using this race as a steppingstone to dirt races like the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) on April 1 or the Central Bank Ashland (G1) the following week. I've got to toss her under the circumstances.
A - 5
B - 6, 9
Tampa Bay Derby (race 11, 5:27 ET): The second-, third-, fourth- and sixth-place finishers from the Sam F. Davis (G3)—Tapwrit (#5), State of Honor (#8), Wild Shot (#9) and No Dozing (#4)—are back for this 1 1/16-mile route that, like the San Felipe, offers 85 Derby qualifying points.
Todd Pletcher, who sends out both Tapwrit and two-time stakes winner Sonic Mule (#7), is shooting for his fifth Tampa Bay Derby win, and fourth in five years. Tapwrit was making his graded stakes debut in the Sam F. Davis, and appears to have more upside, but Sonic Mule will keep the likes of Beasley (#6) and anyone else honest through the early going.
In a February allowance-optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park, Beasley gave Battalion Runner—a 1-5 shot from Pletcher—a real tussle first time going long. Beasley was scratched from last Saturday's Xpressbet Fountain of Youth (G2) to await this.
And while State of Honor was sent to the early lead from the rail in the Sam F. Davis—in what was just his second start on dirt—I expect he will be taken back off the leaders breaking toward the outside.
A - 5, 6
B - 7, 8
C - 4, 9
Honeybee (OP, race 8, 4:38 CT): In her seasonal debut and first start against winners, the Bill Mott-trained Elate (#2) couldn't catch Tapa Tapa Tapa (#7) as the 3-10 favorite in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs four weeks ago.
Keep in mind, though, that Mott also developed three-time champion Royal Delta, who also went down to defeat as a second-time starter in the Suncoast before rebounding to win an allowance race and the Black-Eyed Susan (G2). She can turn the tables here, but no knocks on Tapa Tapa Tapa, who was making her first start on dirt (and first in blinkers) when she recorded faster early fractions than those in the Sam Davis two races later.
It Tiz Well (#6) was second to pro-tem division leader Unique Bella in the Santa Ynez (G2), and bounced back nicely to win her preliminary allowance condition. She hasn't been past seven furlongs yet, but she is by Arch and out of a Tiznow mare, and ought to stay this 1 1/16 miles at the very least.
A - 2, 6, 7
B - 1, 3, 4