Litfin: Handicapping Stakes at Belmont, Keeneland

Litfin at Large looks at the big races Oct. 7.

Four grade 1 stakes, all offering winners fees-paid berths to Breeders' Cup races in their respective divisions, have been packaged into another cross-country Pick 4 Oct. 7. The bet, listed as "Belmont-Keeneland Pick 4" at betting terminals and on advance-deposit-wagering platforms, has a 50-cent minimum and links the Champagne Stakes (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park with the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1)  and Shadwell Turf Mile (G1T) at Keeneland.

Keeneland will two other Breeders' Cup Challenge races, the First Lady Stakes (G1) and the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2), as well as the Woodford Presented By Keeneland Select (G2T), which will surely produce some contenders for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1T).

The fall meet at Keeneland ushers in higher pari-mutuel takeouts nearly across the board, with win-place-show rates hiked from 16% to 17.5%, and the bite on all other wagers except for the Pick 5 increased from 19% to 22%, the maximum allowed by Kentucky state law. The Pick 5 take has been lowered from 19% to 15%, so that may be where multi-race bettors want to shift their focus.

Keeneland is the host for this cross-country Pick 4, so the 22% rake is still a bit better than New York's 24% for Pick 4 wagers. Let's go through the sequence in chronological order (all times Eastern).

Champagne (Belmont, race 8, 4:13 p.m.): Perhaps the most impressive performance by a 2-year-old maiden winner at Saratoga Race Course was Honorable Treasure's 6 1/4-length score in an off-the-turf race at seven furlongs that was fast early, middle, and late. The colt by To Honor and Serve  ran fifth in a turf route opening weekend at Saratoga, but then added Lasix and improved a ton to beat Ezmosh. The latter came back to win at Churchill Downs, and runs in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity.

Honorable Treasure (9) drew favorably toward the outside in this one-mile race, which begins out of the chute and can create problems for horses drawn on the rail, mainly because there is no inner rail at that point, and they often duck in toward the gap.

Hazit (11) controlled a moderate pace to win his debut in the Travers Day opener, and the $430,000 War Front  colt will try to give Todd Pletcher his seventh Champagne victory.

Two maidens have legitimate chances: Good Magic (6), who was bet to odds-on and chased Hazit around the track first time out for Chad Brown (who won this race last year with Practical Joke ); and Bahamian (7), a shipper from Southern California coming off a runner-up finish to Solomini, who finished second in the FrontRunner Stakes (G1) behind Bolt d'Oro, the probable favorite for the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1).

Aveenu Malcainu (8) won his first two starts at Saratoga, including the $200,000 Funny Cide Stakes, and the New York-bred son of Into Mischief  blazed a bullet half-mile over the main track last week.

Stronger (3) won out of the mile chute at Gulfstream Park in his second start for trainer Eric Guillot, who has been known to win big races in New York at big prices.

A - 9, 11
B - 6, 7
C - 3, 12

Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (Keeneland, race 8, 5:10 p.m.): Four winners of this race have gone on to win the Juvenile, including divisional champion Classic Empire  last year, and a baker's dozen entered this renewal of this race at 1 1/16 miles—a distance all but Ten City (4) will be trying for the first time.

The field is likely to shrink slightly, as Captivating Moon (11) is also entered in the Oct. 8 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (G3T), and Enticed (13) is expected to remain at home for the Champagne and a more favorable starting position.

In addition to having a race at the distance under his belt, Ten City is the only entrant to have run over the track—a winning debut at 4 1/2 furlongs in April—and is one of two that has won twice, having won the Bashford Manor Stakes (G3) in June. That's a lot of things to like about a horse listed at 10-1 on the morning line.

We're spreading here and also using a handful that showed promise out of the seven-furlong chute at Saratoga—Lionite (1), Ezmosh (2), Lone Sailor (3), Givemeaminit (7), Bourbon Resolution (8), and the 2-1 favorite Free Drop Billy (9). The latter continues to train forwardly since rallying to finish a close second in the Hopeful Stakes (G1).

A - 2, 9
B - 1, 3, 4, 7, 8

Jockey Club Gold Cup (Belmont, race 10, 5:23 p.m.): The stars have really aligned here for Keen Ice  (7), a durable 5-year-old son of Curlin  whose two races over the summer—a win in the Suburban Stakes (G2) over the track, and a second to Gun Runner in the Whitney Stakes (G1)—were his best efforts since the 2015 Travers Stakes (G1), when he wore down Triple Crown winner American Pharoah .

Keen Ice is a deserving favorite, but I'm somewhat puzzled by the fact that Pavel (4) is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line. The 3-year-old has run just three times, with wins against maidens and in the Smarty Jones Stakes (G3) before and after a fourth in the Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) behind Good Samaritan. Maybe I'm knocking Pavel right into the winner's circle, but to my mind, 5-2 would be the underlay of the season.

Good Samaritan (3) opened some eyes in the Jim Dandy when he finally got on dirt, and after that he was simply left with far too much to do late in the Travers behind 3-year-old division leader West Coast, who controlled a moderate pace throughout. The addition of blinkers may put him a bit closer to the early action, and his trainer, Bill Mott, has won the Gold Cup three times.

Highland Sky (2) has some intrigue at 20-1. Granted, he is an unknown on dirt, but there is little doubt about his ability to stay the trip. What's more, he could get a beneficial pace scenario if Diversify (1) and Rally Cry (5) contest the early fractions.

Anyway, no Pavel for me.

A - 7
B - 3
C - 1, 2, 5

Shadwell Turf Mile (Kee, race 9, 5:45): Getting through the first three legs of this Pick 4 leads you to a 14-horse event with numerous possibilities. The most probable winners appear to be Miss Temple City (8), who beat the boys in this race and the Maker's 46 Mile (G1T) over the course a year ago, and Heart to Heart (10), who has finished second in each of the Maker's 46 Mile's last two runnings.

The way the race shapes up, Heart to Heart will show his customary speed and try to clear over to the inside with the lead, and Miss Temple City will take up the chase from close range.

Things get a little hazy after that, as the other dozen horses try to sort themselves out through a short run to the first turn.
I've got check marks, for various reasons, on Divisidero (2), Suedois (3), Ballagh Rocks(6), Mondialiste (7), and American Patriot (14).

American Patriot drew poorly, to be sure, but he won the Maker's 46 Mile over Heart to Heart in April, and had excuses for off-the-board finishes in the Queen Anne Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot and in the Fourstardave Handicap (G1T) over a rain-soaked course at Saratoga he disliked.

A - 8, 10
B - 2, 3, 14
C - 6, 7