Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Litfin At Large: Estrechada for the Upset

Dave Litfin handicaps Saturday graded stakes.

There's no shortage of interesting stakes across the nation March 18, as racing's version of March madness rolls on with the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park, a Midwest regional, if you will, and an 85-point qualifier leading to the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1).

Meanwhile, the long and short of it for older fillies and mares are the $400,000 Santa Margarita Stakes (G1), the marquee race for the division at Santa Anita Park; the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn; and the $200,000 Inside Information Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.

Rebel (OP, race, 10, 6:06 CDT): Oaklawn has become Bob Baffert's personal playground, and the Hall of Fame trainer shoots for his seventh Rebel win in the last eight years with American Anthem (#7), the 2-1 morning-line choice in a field of 11. The Bodemeister  colt has run only twice, but has shown tremendous potential. As a first-time starter at Del Mar, he beat maiden sprinters from post 11, rallying to catch a loose leader despite neglecting to change leads. As it turned out, that has been a key race that spawned four next-out winners, including California Derby winner So Conflated, and Iliad, who took a maiden race and the San Vicente (G2). 

In a sloppy renewal of the one-mile Sham Stakes (G3) five weeks later, American Anthem fought gamely through a stretch-long duel with the more experienced Gormley and just missed, while 13 lengths clear of the third finisher. When debut maiden winners run back against winners and improve while stretching out at the same time, as did American Anthem, it is the calling card of a very good horse.

Malagacy (#6) has a similar look for Todd Pletcher. And while this son of Shackleford  has only run twice, beating maidens and preliminary allowance types in sprints, recall the Pletcher-trained One Liner overcame those same obstacles when he shipped in to win the Southwest Stakes (G3) at the expense of several members of this field.

Of those coming back from the Southwest, runner-up Petrov (#4) and third-finisher Lookin At Lee (#11) have the most appeal. The former was no match for One Liner, but was better than eight lengths clear of Lookin At Lee. That is a significant gap for Lookin At Lee to make up, but that was the seasonal debut for the Steve Asmussen-trained colt, and the deep closer is reminiscent of Creator, who ran third in the Rebel, before going on to win the Arkansas Derby (G1) and the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1) last season.

Lookin At Lee may get a favorable pace scenario, as there are several early-speed types in the matchup.

Royal Mo (#10) may have won a soft renewal of the Robert B. Lewis (G3) first time out this year, but the son of Uncle Mo  did it the right way, and it's not his fault none of the division's heavy-heads showed up.

A - 6, 7
B - 4, 10, 11

Prior to the Rebel, Terra Promessa, who is 5 for 5 at Oaklawn, will be something on the order of 3-5 to stay perfect over the track in the Azeri Stakes (G2); and Baffert's Mor Spirit heads a field of eight older males in the $250,000 Essex Handicap. If nothing else, those two races are at the same 1 1/16-mile distance as the Rebel, so figure-makers will have plenty to work with.

Santa Margarita (SA, race 9, 4:30 PDT): Maybe this race will play out the way it seems on paper and come down to a duel between the two favorites, Vale Dori (#2) and Finest City (#3), but here's the thing—neither has ever run at the distance, and for that matter, neither has anyone else with the exception of Estrechada (#8).

The Argentine-bred Vale Dori did run well in the UAE Derby (G2) going 1 3/16 miles last March, but her seven starts in the United States, capped by three consecutive wins in grade 2 company, have been at distances up to 1 1/16 miles.

And although she ran well in the John C. Mabee (G2T) going nine furlongs on grass last September, Finest City, last year's champion female sprinter, has only been past seven furlongs once on dirt, when third to Beholder and Stellar Wind in the Vanity Mile Stakes (G1) last June.

Envisioning a scenario where those two knock heads early and often, I'm going to fool around with the other mare from Argentina, Estrechada, whose only dirt start in this country was a forgettable effort in the 2016 Marathon against males. Regardless of what went wrong that day, she returned in early February for new trainer Mike Puype, and ran a solid second in the 1 1/2-mile Astra II Stakes behind Goodyearforroses, who is now 3 for 3 at Santa Anita after coming back to win the Santa Ana Stakes (G2T). 

Estrechada is a stayer who has won three times at 12 furlongs or longer, and we'll fashion an across-the-board wager as follows:

Win - 8
Exactas - 2, 3 with 8
Trifectas - 2, 3 with 2, 3 with 8

Inside Information (GP, race 11, 5:39 EDT): Curlin's Approval (#8) is 3-5 on the morning line, which seems about right for a filly who comes off impressive wins in the Hurricane Bertie (G3) and the Royal Delta Stakes (G2), and now boasts a record of 5-1-0 from six starts over a fast Gulfstream strip.

But while Curlin's Approval is in top form and ideally drawn outside for the cutback to seven-eighths, she will have to deal with Dearest (#5), who beat her on a wet track in the Azalea Stakes last July. At seven furlongs or less, Dearest's only loss was a close second in the Prioress Stakes (G2).

As with the Santa Margarita, there is an intriguing long shot to consider if the two favorites become preoccupied with each other, because Wheatfield (#1) has more angles than a three-cuhion billiard shot. The 5-year-old homebred mare makes her third start back from a freshening, goes turf to dirt (as she did for her maiden win), and closed out a solid sophomore campaign with a big win at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. Granted, that was against fellow Louisiana-breds, but as far as 20-1 shots go, you could do a lot worse.

Another across-the-board play is in order:

Win - 1
Exactas - 5, 8 with 1
Trifectas - 5, 8 with 5, 8 with 1