This is easily the most intriguing race on the card, as there are a number of enigmatic contenders. Two of the most naturally talented horses in the race are Quest for Fire (#4) and Dark Ops (#11), but both are difficult to trust. Quest for Fire returned from a lengthy layoff following his fast debut win and never appeared to be comfortable. He’s now returning just 6 weeks later in the barn of Ray Handal and needs to turn his form around. Dark Ops was perhaps even more impressive when breaking his maiden back in October, but he looked like a completely different horse when abruptly stopping on the turn as the 1-2 favorite last time.
What complicates matters even further for these two is the likely pace scenario, since the Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace. Both of these horses broke their maidens while racing on uncontested early leads and they are unlikely to enjoy such soft trips here with speedy runners like Foolish Ghost and Three to Thirteen also in the mix.
Among the short prices, I prefer Ready to Escape (#2). He ran fast to break his maiden last time, finally putting it all together after showing promise in his first four starts. I didn’t like the way he drifted out through the lane last time, especially since he’s apparently had some physical issues. That said, he’s proven that he’s capable of stalking the pace in prior starts.
Another horse to consider is Charlie McCoy (#1). He ran a strong race at this level back in June and has had excuses since then, as he caught a sloppy track two back and was badly compromised by a poor start last time. I’m using both of these runners, but I think this is a race in which we can look outside the box.
I’m taking a shot with bigger price VICAR’S LEGEND (#6). I know he looks cheaper than these at first glance, but this gelding has been steadily improving in his recent starts. He hinted that he was starting to round into form with his fourth-place effort on Nov. 10, and he has consistently improved in each start since. His most recent performance on Dec. 22 was clearly his best, as he traveled well every step of the way and might have finished much closer if not for traffic in the stretch. This is the toughest field he’s ever encountered, but I think the added furlong and an expected fast pace will benefit him.
Exacta Key Box: 6 with 1,2,11
Trifecta Box: 1,2,6
Trifecta: 2,6 with 2,6 with 3,4,8,11