A paralyzing winter storm and deep freeze have put racing in hibernation for the time being in the Northeast, so handicappers will devote most of their attention to South Florida and Southern California, where the Jan. 6 weather will be a lot more conducive to the greatest sport played outdoors.
Santa Anita Park offers a graded stakes doubleheader, with the $100,000 Sham (G3) for 3-year-olds followed a bit later in the afternoon by the $200,000 San Gabriel (G2T) for older horses.
It's all about the 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, where nine of 11 races are for the sophomores, including five stakes worth a combined $450,000.
Setting the San Gabriel aside, the primary theme—at least for me—will be to tread lightly and go to school on these newly turned 3-year-olds. They are just beginning to sort themselves out, and their connections are still learning about their preferences regarding distance, surface, and running style.
Sham (SA, race 5, 2:30 PT): McKinzie will be odds-on against six rivals, four weeks after finishing second and getting put up for the win in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) when his stablemate, Solomini, was taken down on a rather controversial call.
Although not nearly as impressive as he had been in winning his debut, McKinzie (6) gained quite a bit of seasoning in the Futurity by racing four wide around the first turn, and then winding up along the rail in a three-way battle through deep stretch.
Bob Baffert takes the blinkers off McKinzie, and it will be interesting to see whether Mike Smith opts to take the strapping son of Street Sense back a little further off the pace, since he is drawn outside of a potential early battle between All Out Blitz (3), Mourinho (4) and Shivermetimbers (5).
Is McKinzie the real deal? We'll find out more in this spot.
San Gabriel (SA, race 7, 3:30 PT): A familiar cast of characters assembles for this 1 1/8-mile grass race, among them Flamboyant (1), who won the 2016 San Gabriel; Itsinthepost (8), who was second in the 2017 renewal; and Isotherm (6), who beat them both in the San Marcos at 10 furlongs over the local course last winter.
Isotherm, however, has been sidelined almost 10 months since fading to fifth in the Santa Anita Handicap presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1) on the main track, and during that time Itsinthepost has collected three grade 2 stakes victories.
Itsinthepost, with his success at the distance, seems like the horse to beat, but one entrant to keep an eye on at a square price is Top of the Game (3), who has some appeal for a few reasons. He has won four of seven starts since blinkers were removed, including a big win over the multiple grade 1 winner and $3 million earner Hopportunity when returned from a layoff in late October. That effort was followed four weeks later by a tough-trip fourth in the Native Diver (G3), and this looks like a classic "bounce-rebound" pattern third back.
Two of Top of the Game's three losses since the blinkers came off were in one-mile turf races, but those were his initial starts against winners, and he finished well in both—running the fourth quarter in under 23 seconds each time.
The plan is to key Top of the Game and try to get him somewhere on the board with the three aforementioned contenders. At 8-1 or better, he rates a win bet as well.
QUICK HITS AT GULFSTREAM
Limehouse (GP, race 3, 1:05 ET): A lot of unknowns here. Morning-line choice Piven (3) has never run on dirt; the two best races turned in by second-choice Aequor (2) were on wet tracks; and Interdiction (6) won his only start in Puerto Rico by 14 lengths, shortly before Hurricane Maria decimated the island.
Others Will Follow (2) and Elevenses (7) each won their respective unveilings by better than 10 lengths, while Cicatrix (4) won by more than seven. All three led from flagfall to finish, though, and the raw fractions suggest that Act Now (6), who pressed a sharp opening split at Parx, may be the quickest of the quick.
Kitten's Joy (GP, race 7, 3:05 ET): Questions, questions, and more questions.
Flameaway (1) is the 2-1 favorite for this 7 1/2-furlong grass test, but he has notched both of his wins on sealed wet tracks in off-the-turf races. Can he improve off his pace-pressing effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T)?
Power of Attorney (3) improved a ton when switched to turf at Aqueduct in late fall, but sailed along on a clear lead through moderate middle fractions and faced no serious late challenges. Was he simply a one-hit wonder?
Fast Boat (5) broke from an impossibly wide post and ran third in his debut behind Analyze It, who was so impressive winning the Cecil B. DeMille (G3T) after that. Can Fast Boat follow up on his sharp second-out maiden score over the Gulfstream course early at the winter meet?
Ginger Brew (GP, race 9, 4:06 ET): The filly counterpart to the Kitten's Joy drew a field of 10, and it's anyone's guess who will wind up favored among Thewayiam (5), Malibu Saint (6) and Andina Del Sur (8).
Worth a look at a price is Delamar (9), whose only turf route to date was the Natalma (G1T), which has produced a couple of two-time stakes winners in Dixie Moon and Wonder Gadot, the latter having annexed the Demoiselle (G2) at the Big A. Delamar has had almost two months off since a preliminary allowance win over Woodbine's synthetic surface, and she has turned in a trio of sharp recent workouts at bucolic Payson Park for Roger Attfield, who has won with three of his first six starters at Gulfstream.
Dak Attack beat eventual Hopeful (G1) winner Sporting Chance first time out, and then took the Ellis Park Juvenile going away, before being put away for the year.
Mask broke slowly in his first and only start at Belmont Park, but rallied smartly between horses and pulled clear to beat Navistar, a well-regarded $900,000 son of Union Rags who returned to graduate three weeks ago at Gulfstream at odds of 2-5.
Dak Attack and Mask are both stretching out to a mile for the first time, and five of their six rivals have already run at the distance, including Bal Harbour (4) and Whereshetoldmetogo (8), the one-two finishers in the Smooth Air on the same track four weeks ago.
Enjoy the races, learn some things for future reference, and above all stay warm. Happy New Year!