Litfin at Large: State-Bred Cards Take Center Stage

Dave Litfin handicaps Saturday's top stakes races.

It's the calm before the impending Breeders' Cup storm, and besides the Grand National Steeplechase (NSA1) at Far Hills, the only graded stakes to be contested in North America Oct. 21 is the Lexus Raven Run (G2) at Keeneland.

But Saturday is a big deal for state-breds. Not only is it Empire Showcase Day at Belmont Park, where the $300,000 Empire Classic Handicap is the richest of eight stakes for New York-breds, but it is also Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park, where the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic anchors a program with seven stakes valued at $100,000 or more. 

Lexus Raven Run (Kee, race 9, 5:30 ET): The California contingent of Chalon (8), Classy Tune (9), and Miss Sunset (11) look as though they may be a bit faster than their rivals from the East and the Midwest, but there are potential reservations about all three. 

Chalon is back with 3-year-old fillies after running second in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2) to odds-on winner Finley'sluckycharm, but the two-week turnaround is something she has never attempted before. 

Classy Tune was even-money last time out, but could do no better than third behind Miss Sunset, whose seven dirt races thus far have all been either restricted or California-bred races.

The logical alternative is Nonna Mela (4), last year's Adirondack Stakes (G2) winner, who won her seasonal debut nicely for Todd Pletcher, before catching an off track and settling for second behind Vertical Oak, who is a card-carrying mud lark.

In Todd we trust.

Of the top three finishers exiting the Charles Town Oaks (G3): Tequilita (7), Yorkiepoo Princess (1) and Overture (2), the latter might be worth a look to turn the tables. Overture, who won the Indiana Oaks (G3) in her stakes debut, looks like a work in progress for Bill Mott, whose patient handling of the late-blooming Elate has paid big dividends. Overture had been in front early in four straight starts, but found herself far back early at Charles Town after bumping solidly with a rival at the break; better racing luck may be all she needs.

A - 4
B - 8, 9, 11
C - 2

Empire Classic (Bel, race 5, 2:34 ET): Royal Posse (9) and Governor Malibu (8) ran one-two in this race last year, but neither has been able to break through with a victory in 2017. Royal Posse's form has in fact deteriorated tremendously, while Governor Malibu hasn't been a serious threat in any of four outings at age 4, and has made just one appearance since June, when a distant second to Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)-bound Diversify in the Evan Shipman at Saratoga Race Course.

It was another country mile back to third-finisher Papa Shot in the Evan Shipman, which apparently was enough to earn the Stonewall Farm homebred a trip to Seoul Racecourse for the Keeneland Korea Cup less than three weeks later. Papa Shot raced without medication and finished third in the Korea Cup. He may improve at Belmont, where he was a solid second to Diversify in the Saginaw back in early July.

Twisted Tom (3) has won five of six starts this year, the lone blemish a tough trip, off-the-board finish in the Belmont Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1). He has been freshened since a decisive score in the Albany Stakes over Can You Diggit (6), and this will be his initial attempt against older horses, as well as his first one-turn route.

The other 3-year-old in the field, Control Group (4), makes his stakes debut after winning three in a row over the summer for Rudy Rodriguez, who sends out Royal Posse and Becker's Galaxy (2) as well.

Control Group is in with a feather, and it's conceivable he could wind up the controlling speed yet again.

A - 1, 8
B - 3

C - 4

Maryland Million Classic (Lrl, race 10, 5:13 ET): On their best efforts, the two most talented horses in this full field of 12 are Admirals War Chest (1) and John Jones (2), who have the advantage of breaking toward the inside with a short run to the first turn.

But neither gelding has done much racing this year. Admirals War Chest has in fact won the past two editions of this race in front-running fashion, but his only outing this year was a pop-and-stop effort in an off-the-turf optional claimer 13 days ago, and it feels like he is being rushed back for this race.

The same could also be said of John Jones, who won the Jennings Stakes over Maryland-breds by five lengths on New Year's Eve 2016, but then didn't surface again until a high-end optional claiming turf sprint at Belmont just over two weeks ago, when he made up a little over 10 lengths after lagging well off a hotly contested pace. 

John Jones has won twice previously going turf to dirt, and should relish the return to the main track at Laurel, where he has notched seven of his eight career victories.

Bonus Points (5) and Ghost Bay (11) are close on ability based on a line through common opponent Just Howard, who beat them both in photo finishes on turf over the summer, before extending his winning streak to four in the Commonwealth Derby (G3T) for Graham Motion.

But whereas Bonus Points is strongly fancied as the second choice on the morning line behind John Jones, Ghost Bay is tabbed at 8-1 and may offer some value in a situation where the two horses breaking from inside have an air of uncertainty about them.

A - 2, 11
B - 1, 5