The only graded stakes on the last Saturday in February will be contested on opposite ends of the country, when Irish War Cry makes his 4-year-old debut in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park, and Peter Miller saddles the top three morning-line choices in the $150,000 Daytona Stakes (G3T) down the hillside course at Santa Anita Park.
Other than that, the only six-figure stakes not restricted to state-bred runners are the $125,000 Gazebo Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters at Oaklawn Park, and the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup Stakes for older routers under the lights at Sam Houston Race Park.
Hal's Hope (GP, race 12, 5:35 ET): The big story is the return of Irish War Cry, who last year captured two grade 2 stakes and ran second in the Belmont Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1) through a Jekyll-and-Hyde sophomore season that also included several dismal performances.
It's guesswork as to which Irish War Cry (1) shows up first time out since he faded to eighth in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), and the inside post puts him in a potentially precarious position right from the get-go.
There are questions about several other contenders, notably Economic Model (2), who is tabbed as the second choice despite having been blanked from seven previous tries in graded stakes; as well as Todd Pletcher's pair of Malagacy (6), a workmanlike second against allowance sprinters in his recent return from a layoff of nine months, and Send It In (8), a New York-bred gelding who hasn't been out since a fast win in the Excelsior Stakes (G3) almost 13 months ago.
On the other hand, Pletcher's layoff horses routinely run well. Just ask Conquest Big E (3), who ran his heart out in the recent Fred Hooper Stakes (G3) but had to settle for second to Tommy Macho, a Pletcher comebacker who hadn't been out since September.
Send It In may be locked and loaded off a slate of sharp workouts at Palm Beach Downs, but I may wind up fooling around with Tower of Texas (4), just because turf-to-dirt propositions are irresistible to me when they're in good form and figure to be double-digit odds.
In fact, I walked into Gulfstream Dec. 16 thinking Roger Attfield had a big shot in the Tropical Turf Stakes (G3T) with Tower of Texas, and then watched in mild bewilderment as Attfield won the race with his other horse, Shakhimat, who stole it up front and paid $25.
Whether the gelded son of Street Sense can handle dirt after 28 starts on either turf or synthetic surfaces remains to be seen, but his breeding is certainly not a negative, as the dam, Rare Opportunity, won on dirt and has produced two multiple dirt winners. The timing—six weeks since overcoming a slow pace to win the Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap—is good; and eight furlongs is fine for a hard-knocker that ran a close second to the champion Tepin in the 2016 Ricoh Woodbine Mile (G1T).
The plan is to try and get Tower of Texas somewhere in the top three with the obvious contenders, fashioning a kind of across-the-board play with a win bet, and in the second/third slots of exactas and trifectas.
Daytona (SA, race 4, 2:00 PT): It certainly looks like Miller Time, since the top three horses in this field of seven—Stormy Liberal (7), Calculator (5) and Conquest Tsunami (4)—will all be saddled by Peter Miller.
Seven of Stormy Liberal's eight career wins have come down the hill at Santa Anita, including this event last year as a prohibitive 1-2 choice. The erstwhile claimer's only other win, of course, was a 30-1 shocker in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1T) in a photo over stablemate Richard's Boy, for an all-Miller exacta worth $277.50 for $1. Stormy Liberal, a $40,000 claim in October of 2016, makes his first start since running off the board in the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) to close out his 5-year-old season.
Calculator has won all three of his starts over the course in progressively tougher spots, and while he usually comes from off the pace, he emerges from a front-running win in the restricted Clockers; Corner and has since turned in a couple of bullet workouts.
Conquest Tsunami recently captured his first start of the year—and first for Miller— against optional claiming company down the hill pretty easily, and the speedster shakes out as the one to catch, maybe at a halfway decent price.
To borrow another beer slogan, let's go for the gusto and key Conquest Tsunami, the probable pacesetter, with Miller's two more highly regarded runners.
Gazebo (OP, race 8, 4:38 CT): Not much to do here except to watch and see if Mitole (3) is for real, after a flashy and fast maiden win over the track three weeks ago for Steve Asmussen.
Asmussen also sends out the stakes-seasoned Direct Dial (2), but one gets the sense that Mitole could be bound for the marquee 3-year-old sprints with continued progress here.
One word of caution: According to the Plod Boys over at RacingFlow.com, who measure these kinds of things rather scientifically, Mitole's win was accomplished under conditions extremely kind to speed horses. Indeed, the race received a CFR (Closer Favorability Ratio) of 1 (based on a scale of 1-100), which is as speed-favoring as it gets.
Maxxam Gold Cup (Hou, race 8, 9:16 CT): No big opinions about the six veterans assembled here, other than the fact that none of them have yet managed to win at the 1 1/8-mile trip, which brings an element of doubt into the proceedings.
Blueridge Traveler (2) has run second twice from as many attempts at the distance, but the 6-5 morning-line favorite has only run in stakes company once, as a 3-year-old in last year's Jack Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes (G3) on a synthetic track, while opponents Social Misfit (1) and Net Gain (4) have been through the wars regularly.
Social Misfit, for what it's worth, comes off a third in the slop at Delta Downs behind Mobile Bay, whose lifetime earnings of nearly $1.2 million include a win in the 2015 Super Derby (G2) and, oddly enough, the 2016 edition of the Maxxam Gold Cup.
I do like the fact that Net Gain gets a switch back to Glenn Corbett, whose only prior ride aboard the 6-year-old son of Include was a win in the Unbridled Stakes on turf at Louisiana Downs back in early September.
Net Gain was out of his element in the 12-furlong John B. Connolly Turf Cup Stakes (G3T) last time out, and he may be worth a wager at something around his 5-2 price on the morning line.