Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Litfin At Large: Calm Before the Pegasus Storm

Dave Litfin handicaps some of the weekend's biggest races.

While anticipation builds toward the Eclipse Awards and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) with a blockbuster supporting card next week at Gulfstream Park, Jan. 20 qualifies as something of a slow news day.

The Las Cienegas Stakes(G3T) at Santa Anita Park is the only graded stakes on the menu, and it is also Sunshine Millions Day. As someone on Twitter pointed out, the only things missing will be sunshine and millions, since the South Florida forecast is for cloudy skies, and the four stakes are worth $600,000 combined.

Las Cienegas (SA, race 7, 3:30 PT): Nine older fillies and mares entered this 6 1/2-furlong event on the hillside turf course. The quirky layout with a downhill run and slight right-handed turn received its own chapter in James Quinn's "The Complete Handicapper."

Quinn, rightfully regarded as the dean of handicapping authors, offered this advice: "...the key to success on Santa Anita's peculiar downhill turf course is the merciless avoidance of any American horse 4-and-up that has not won or run well on the course in the past."

By that measure, Bendable (2) is a bet-against as the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, because the lightly raced 5-year-old mare has run eight times, all on the dirt.

The second choice at 7-2 is Beau Recall (9), but while the 4-year-old filly has won or placed in four of five starts on the local turf, all of those races were at a mile or longer.

Both have their merits: Bendable is a grade 3 winner, and Beau Recall was beaten a nose in the Del Mar Oaks (G1T) last summer. But in terms of past good form going 6 1/2 panels down the hill, Coniah (1) and Anita Partner (6) have the edge—provided, that is, they are primed for their first outings since last summer.

Coniah was last seen running second to Bendable in the Desert Stormer Stakes (G3) on the main track. Prior to that, she ran second in back-to-back starts down the hill, beaten a nose in the Mizdirection Stakes and a half-length in the Monrovia Stakes (G2T).

Anita Partner rallied from last to wind up third in the Monrovia, and followed with two efforts of lesser quality at Del Mar before going to the sidelines.

A - 1, 6
B - 2, 9

Sunshine Millions Classic (GP, race 4, 1:30 ET): Along the same lines as Quinn's findings, it's usually wise to avoid short-priced horses who are trying to be successful at something for the first time. But even though Mr. Jordan (5) is 0-for-9 at Gulfstream and 0-for-4 at the 1 1/8-mile trip, it's hard to get around the 6-5 favorite, who ran second in the 2016 Classic, and finished up 2017 with a pair of sharp performances.

Playing devil's advocate, though, it could be noted that he is now 6 and perhaps set up for a "bounce" after those two peak efforts, and that four of his five opponents have similar up-close running styles.

The pace scenario may benefit Catholic Cowboy (2), who was the third-place finisher—albeit a distant one—behind Mr. Jordan in the 2016 Classic. 

Catholic Cowboy spun his wheels over a sloppy track when brought back from a long layoff at Keeneland in the fall, and his subsequent fourth-place finish at seven furlongs here early at the meet can be regarded as a beneficial sharpener.

It's a reach, admittedly, but far stranger things have happened.

A - 5
B - 2

Sunshine Millions Turf (GP, race 7, 3:00 ET): This is a competitive little race that matches up the last two Turf winners—Our Way(1) and Manchurian High (4)—as well as Enterprising (6), who was a neck behind Our Way in second last year.

Our Way hasn't been out since Saratoga, but hadn't been out for nearly three months when he won this race last winter.

Manchurian High, now 10, spent the fall running over the jumps, and he will carry 35 pounds less than he did in his maiden victory at Charleston.

The pace will undoubtedly by set by Charlie Mops (2), who has had the early lead on nine occasions over the past 14 months and been unable to hang on even once. But his last win did come at the expense of Enterprising, and he is adding blinkers first time off a claim by Loooch Racing Stables and Peter Walder.

Galleon Mast (5) has never been out of the money through a dozen starts over the local layout, and picks up Irad Ortiz Jr.

Spring Up (3) and Second Mate (7) were noses apart prepping for this in a $100,000 optional claimer at Tampa Bay Downs four weeks back. 

Swagger Jagger (8) was a reclaim by Mike Maker when he ran down Charlie Mops here Dec. 6.

A - 1, 6
B - 3, 5, 7
C - 2, 4, 8

That covers it, at least to some extent, no matter what.

Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf (GP, race 10, 4:30 ET): The potential for a too-fast pace arises between morning-line favorite Starship Jubilee (4) and second choice Daddy's Boo (6).

Starship Jubilee was a bit keen tugging her way along early in the Claiming Crown Tiara opening day, and after opening a clear lead turning for home she weakened to wind up third.

Daddy's Boo, a Midwestern invader from high-percentage trainer Larry Rivelli, is a run-and-gun type who likes to sprint clear early, and those tactics have enabled the 7-year-old mare to win 15 of 25 starts.

Waiting in the wings will be Bonita (2) and Josdesanimaux (10), who finished first and second in the Panama City Handicap over the course in August. The latter picks up Jose Ortiz. 

Bitacora (3) is another new acquisition for Peter Walder, and has competitive back races.

We'll play it for a meltdown and enjoy the cavalry charge to the wire.

A - 2, 3, 10
B - 4, 6

Sunshine Millions Sprint (GP, race 11, 5:00 ET): The remarkable X Y Jet (1) returned from a third knee surgery Dec. 23, and became the first horse to win the Mr. Prospector Stakes (G3) twice, having also won the six-furlong dash in 2015.

X Y Jet won the 2015 edition of the race by 9 1/4 lengths, and although he had to dig down to prevail by a half-length two years later, he was probably a bit rusty first time out in just over 13 months. Another good performance here probably earns the gray gelding a return trip to Dubai for the $2 million Golden Shaheen sponsored by Gulf News (G1), which he led to the final yards before settling for second in 2016.

The logical horses to use underneath and/or in back-up roles are Mo Cash (3); Bold Envoy (5), and Sheikh of Sheikhs (7). The latter moves to the outside post second time back from a layoff of almost a year, after breaking slowly and rushing up early in an allowance sprint last month.

A - 1
B - 3, 5
C - 7