Aqueduct Horses in Focus for Sunday, January 5

RACE 4: PRAIRIE FIRE (#3)

Elegant Rose’s early speed is going to make her pretty tough for this field to handle as long as she returns from the layoff in top form. The Pace Projector is predicting that she will be clearly in front in a situation favoring the early leader, since there just aren’t any other confirmed front-runners in this field. She stepped up her game in October at Belmont, and has been off for nearly two months since then, but she earned speed figures that make her the horse to beat. Some may be concerned that she’s returning for new trainer Levine, but do note that she was training down in Florida, presumably with Jorge Navarro, until late December. Main rival Cadeau de Paix got the job done last time as the drop in class did the trick. She rebounded from a poor effort against tougher N1X company to record her career-best Beyer. While that performance came over a good track, she’s perfectly capable of handling dry going as well. That non-effort in November is more the exception rather than the rule, as her form has otherwise been trending in the right direction. The only issue as she moves back up in class is the lack of speed in this race, since she is best rallying from just off the pace. That dearth of speed is also a concern for my top pick Prairie Fire, who admittedly does need to improve to beat the two favorites. She has basically maintained her form since the claim by Linda Rice despite finishing off-the-board in her two starts since the claim. Those results were the consequence of more ambitious placements rather than any regression on this filly’s part. She actually ran deceptively well last time to close for fifth after getting shuffled back early and having to race through strong kickback while altering course in the lane. Furthermore, Linda Rice is 11 for 27 (41%, $2.77 ROI) off short layoffs of 1 to 10 days in dirt sprints over 5 years.

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RACE 6: TRI SAINT LORENZO (#3)

It’s hard to get too excited about the Mike Maker and Mark Casse runners in this affair. I suppose New Frontier is the horse to beat for the prior barn, and he would be awfully formidable if he were able to run back to his strong effort at Saratoga on Aug. 31. However, his three starts since then haven’t been quite as strong as he’s certainly had his fair share of chances at short prices. Mark Casse has entered both Hip Hip Jorge and Conquistador. While the former brings the stronger recent form, he’s excelled on dirt and synthetic recently and hasn’t earned a competitive dirt speed figure in quite some time. Conquistador, the troubled $2.45 million 2-year-old purchase, returns from yet another layoff here, but it does feel like he’s betting back on his preferred surface. I’m using them, but my top pick is fellow layoff runner Tri Saint Lorenzo. This 4-year-old returns from an 8-month layoff here after getting sent to the sidelines following a dull effort in May. Prior to that, his first two starts were fairly encouraging, as he ran deceptively well in his debut to get up for fourth and was justifiably bet down to 2-1 next time out off the promise shown. He was a little disappointing in March, as he again broke slowly and didn’t take a step forward from a speed figure perspective. Though, he met some solid rivals in those races and it’s not as if he’s facing a particularly intimidating group in his return. He comes into this race with more upside than the rest and he figures to get some pace to close into with the speedy Ink Splotz in the field.

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RACE 7: VORTICITY (#5)

This optional claimer features the anticipated return of Gotham winner Haikal, who hasn’t raced since finishing third in the Wood Memorial last April. He had to be withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby due to a setback and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has given him plenty of time to get back to the races. He was earning some TimeformUS Speed Figures in the spring of his 3-year-old year that are superior to what many of his older rivals in this race are currently achieving, so he doesn’t need to improve at all to beat this field. However, this barn’s runners can sometimes need a start off layoffs. McLaughlin is 4 for 29 (14%, $0.73 ROI) off layoffs of 180 days or more in dirt routes. I’m using him prominently, but I’m trying to beat him here with Vorticity. This 7-year-old horse has had an interesting career, with many stop and starts along the way. He’s come full circle in 2019, now back in the stable of Chuck Lawrence, for whom he ran some of his best races as a youngster. They’ve tried a variety of distances with this horse over the past several years, and I think it’s somewhat curious that they’ve totally avoided dirt routes along the way considering that he was second in both the Jerome and Withers back in 2016. His only other dirt route performance since then came in the Westchester when he was just no match for the supremely talented Connect. He enters this race off a pair of six-furlong tries out of town and I don’t think he was disgraced in either of them. Now he’s stretching out to a one-turn mile, which should be within his wheelhouse, and the Pace Projector is predicting that he will be alone on the lead in a situation favoring the front-runner.

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