It's a relatively quiet Saturday in terms of stakes action, and oddly enough, Mother Nature will be much less of an obstacle on the East Coast than it will be in Southern California.
Racing at Santa Anita Park was canceled Feb. 17 as the track battened down the hatches and braced for a rainstorm of Biblical proportions, which puts the Feb. 18 $200,000 Buena Vista Stakes (G2T) in serious jeopardy of being moved to a sloppy main track. So much so, that we're just going to go ahead and assume that is the case and move on in search of greener pastures.
Back East, the weather story is not so much about Florida—where it's supposed to be cloudy and in the low 80s for the $200,000 Royal Delta Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park—but more about Maryland, where the forecast for Laurel Park's "Sprintfest Winter Carnival" anchored by the Barbara Fritchie (G2) and General George (G3) handicaps calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 60s.
Royal Delta (GP, race 4, 1:30 ET): This 1 1/16-mile dirt route for older fillies and mares, formerly the Sabin, was renamed two years ago in honor of the three-time champion. Royal Delta died from foaling complications this month--eerily reminiscent of when news of Princess Diana's death was just reaching Saratoga Springs, N.Y. early on the morning of Aug. 31, 1997, when the day's feature was the Diana Handicap.
Positioned early on the card, the six-horse Royal Delta is part of the early pick five and early pick four, and the contention whittles down rather swiftly after dismissing Venom Girl (#4), who has been beating up on basement-level claiming company; and Caboclo do Rio (#6), a Chilean import who has been beaten 54 lengths in five off-the-board finishes in the United States.
Left in as strictly a fringe contender is Mo' Green (#3), who could be coming up to a big effort after getting through second-level allowance conditions but has been last and next-to-last in two prior graded stakes starts.
This leaves us with Verve's Tale (#1), who makes her 4-year-old debut after closing out 2016 with a 20-1 upset win in the Comely Stakes (G3); and the one-two finishers from the Rampart Stakes (G3) earlier at the meet, Eskenformoney (#5) and Curlin's Approval (#2).
Verve's Tale was lightly regarded in the Comely because she was coming off a maiden win, and had needed eight tries to finally break through. She had been in the money without fail, however, and against the likes of Paola Queen, who went on to win the Test Stakes (G1) at 55-1, and Going for Broke, who was second to Songbird in the Alabama Stakes (G1).
While there are some doubts about Curlin's Approval stretching out after being unable to fend off Eskenformoney in the one-mile Rampart, she was softened up in a pace duel with the latter's stablemate, Genre, and all things considered, she held on pretty well. That remains the only loss from five starts on a fast Gulfstream track for Curlin's Approval, who returned to win the Hurricane Bertie as much the best six weeks later.
A - 2, 5
B - 1
C - 3
At Laurel, the Barbara Fritchie and General George cap an all-stakes Rainbow 6 that starts with four $75,000 events: the Maryland Racing Media, Wide Country, Miracle Wood, and John B. Campbell stakes. As well, the Wide Country begins a pick five with a bettor-friendly 12% takeout, and the Miracle Wood leads off a pick four.
Barbara Fritchie (Lrl, race 9, 4:30 ET): High Ridge Road (#1) is 3 for 3 over the Laurel surface after a hard-fought win in the Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes over By the Moon (#3), who can surpass $1 million in earnings with a win or runner-up finish on Saturday.
The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Clothes Fall Off (#7) was second to her stablemate, Dancing House, in last year's edition. Clothes Fall Off is back for another try, and makes her second start back from a layoff after coming up a flat fifth behind stretch-running stablemate Takrees (#6) in the Interborough Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack. While Takrees ran her best race to date, Clothes Fall Off is capable of much better and may have simply needed a tightener.
Wonder Gal (#8) comes off a romping win in the Ladies Handicap going two turns, but I'm somewhat skeptical of her going seven furlongs at this level.
A - 1, 3
B - 6, 7
C - 8
General George (Lrl, race 10, 5:00 ET): Final multi-race exotic permutations are necessarily on hold because defending General George winner Page McKenney (#3) is cross-entered in the J.B. Campbell (which he won two years ago). Due to an injury-related absence, his win in the Native Dancer four weeks ago was his first start since last April, and he may be better served by staying at two turns rather than turning back into this far more enervating pace scenario where Afleet Willy (#2) and Imperial Hint (#5) are likely to be out winging.
McLaughlin fires two more bullets here with Classy Class (#4) and Ocean Knight (#10), who each figure somewhere in a mix-and-match matrix based on their recent races at Aqueduct. Note that Classy Class was much farther back than usual in the Toboggan Stakes (G3), but a look at the replay suggests that clipping heels shortly after the start had a lot to do with that.
Formerly stablemates, Stallwalkin' Dude (#6) and Heaven's Runway (#9) were separated by a neck in the Fall Highweight Handicap. Heaven's Runway, though, was in receipt of 11 pounds when he nipped Stallwalkin' Dude that day; this rematch is at equal weights, and the 'Dude may abide those who stick with him.
Voluntario (#7) has run well previously when shipped to Maryland by Rudy Rodriguez, and his win out of the Big A chute three races back stacks up with anything in this field. He'll be a price, too.
A - 6, 7
B - 4, 9
C - 2, 5, 10