RACE 6: AWILLAWAY (#2)
Collegeville Girl is a deserving favorite in this N1X allowance, but a flawed one nevertheless. Her top effort will undoubtedly get her to the winner’s circle, but her form has been frustratingly inconsistent throughout her career. She ran one of her better races three back when rallying to victory at Belmont over respectable foe Mary’s Girl. However, she subsequently disappointed as the 6-5 choice next time out at Aqueduct. While she did get back on track to some extent last time, she just rode the rail most of the way and was never a serious threat to the winner. She may have to improve on that performance to get the job done, and the pattern she has going suggests that it’s no guarantee she will not regress. I want to find an alternative. The logical second choice is Cape Cod Diva, who has posted solid speed figures in her two recent starts on dirt. However, both of those efforts came against weaker company and I’m not sure she’s quite as good as she looks. My top pick is the speedy Awillaway. The Pace Projector is predicting a situation favoring the early leader, and this filly figures to be clearly in front through the early stages. She’s returning from a lengthy layoff, which is always a concern, but she has prior form that makes her a player in this spot. She ran deceptively well in a few starts facing maidens at Aqueduct last year. Yet she significantly improved when moved to Finger Lakes, posting a set of TimeformUS Speed Figures ranging from 96 to 100. Those numbers don’t always translate downstate, but she did face some solid fields. This seems like a good spot for her to return and I like that promising apprentice Luis Cardenas has been named to ride.
RACE 7: MENTAL MODEL (#8)
Possible favorite Traveling has been most effective when able to make the lead, but he did well to adapt his running style last time in his first start for the Rudy Rodriguez barn. He stayed on well for third that day considering that the main track was playing to front-runners on Dec. 14. He must now transfer that recent form to a fast track, but he’s handled such going in the past. One of the main late dangers appears to be Danny California. This horse has yet to win a race since the claim by Orlando Noda, but he’s been steadily improving, having earned a pair of speed figures in his last two starts that arguably make him the horse to beat. The only negative is that he tends to run out of real estate late and he may find this one-mile trip too short for him once again. I want to look in a different direction, so I’m intrigued by the returning Mental Model. This 4-year-old has had a frustrating career so far. He bounced right back off his disappointing debut for Chad Brown with two strong efforts, breaking his maiden with a solid 103 TimeformUS Speed Figure in May at Belmont. While he did benefit from a rail bias that day, he still ran well after controlling the pace. He wasn’t seen for 4 months after getting claimed and both starts for this barn have been poor. Yet it’s noteworthy that Rice brings him back in another starter allowance rather than dropping in for a tag off the layoff. Something obviously went wrong last time as he was put under a protective hold and eased late. This time he is the clear speed and Rice’s go-to rider Lezcano lands here.
RACE 8: MAX PLAYER (#3)
This Withers goes through the favorite Shotski, who would be pretty difficult for this group to handle if able to repeat the 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned when taking down the Remsen last time out. However, he had some factors working in his favor that day which may not be there to aid him on Saturday. The Aqueduct main track was unquestionably favoring forwardly-placed runners on Cigar Mile Saturday, and he took full advantage of that situation in leading the Remsen field throughout while setting fairly moderate early fractions. I’m not suggesting that the performance should be disregarded, but I don’t think he has quite the margin for error that his most recent effort might indicate. Portos seems likely to attract his fair share of support given his ample experience going this distance. While it is impressive that he romped home to a 10-length victory and earned a stakes-quality 109 TimeformUS Speed Figure, it should also be noted that he was defeating an incredibly weak field over a sloppy, sealed track. If I’m going to take a recent maiden winner in this Withers, I’d rather settle on Max Player. Linda Rice applied blinkers for this colt’s second start and he was somewhat more engaged in the early going, improving upon the unfocused behavior he displayed in his debut. His rider still had to keep after him throughout the race, but the horse stayed in the bridle and was there to pounce when asked to reel in the leaders. Given the relentless encouragement that was applied by the rider in both starts, it was nice to see him still finish strongly. He obviously needs to run faster than his top figure of 93, but it’s meaningful that he’s even been entered in this spot. Linda Rice is never one to get ambitious, often preferring to take the path of least resistance with promising runners like this. Therefore, her confidence in moving this colt directly into stakes company should be respected.