Aqueduct Horses in Focus for Sunday, January 3

RACE 3: MANDATORY (#3)

One of many expensive auction purchases in this field, there’s no denything that Johnnypump has been a disappointment. After going for $1.1 million as a yearling, he was subsequently sold to his current connections for just $75k prior to his last start. He’s raced on turf recently, but his two dirt efforts over the summer at Monmouth suggest that he may actually prefer the main track. He rode the rail for much of the way on July 26 when that probably wasn’t the place to be, and rebounded with a better effort on Sep. 12 behind West Will Power, who won next time out with a 107 TimeformUS Speed Figure. He’s the horse to beat, but I’m most intrigued by his main rival Mandatory. This $400k auction purchase debuted as a two-year-old with high expectations, closing willingly to be third in his 6-furlong debut after a wide trip. That performance gave every indication that he should stretch out in distance, especially as a half-brother to multiple Grade 1-winning dirt router I’m a Chatterbox. However, he failed to step forward routing, fading after stalking a moderate pace behind subsequent Discovery winner Forza Di Oro. Mandatory hasn’t been seen for over 14 months, but he returns with a solid series of workouts. John Kimmel isn’t known for his prowess off layoffs, but this colt nevertheless retains real upside. He’s my top, and I’ll primarily use him with the favorite, and the second-time starting filly Aunt Kat, who has a right to take a step forward after getting a conservative ride in her debut.

RACE 7: OPT (#3)

Jerry the Nipper figures to go favored here as he starts as part of an entry with Microsecond. The latter runner prefers turf and is clearly the weaker half of this pairing, but he could nevertheless drag down the price on his stablemate. Jerry the Nipper ran well to win his N1X condition last time, but he also got a good trip, stalking the pace before taking over in upper stretch in a spot where his main rival Cold Hard Cash failed to handle kickback and didn’t show up. He may win right back, but he’s now facing a few rivals who have already run similarly fast speed figures in a race that should feature an honest pace. I won’t be shocked if he overcomes those hurdles, but I’m not willing to take a short price on him. Bourbon Bay has a similar profile to Jerry the Nipper, having just won his N1X condition with a solid speed figure. However, he’s missed some time since that September victory and didn’t draw an ideal post position on the rail. I’m more interested in horses who have already competed at this level, and I want two of the runners exiting that Dec. 6 race won by Chestertown. Opt finished second that day and he’s my top pick. This gelding focused on turf racing for the majority of his career, but he transferred that solid grass form to dirt without issue last time. It shouldn’t be a major surprise since plenty of his siblings handled the main track in addition to having turf success. Given the prospect of a lively early tempo, I expect him to run well again. And I’d also use Six Percent, who finished right behind him last time. This horse has been in great form lately, and arguably ran just as well as Bourbon Bay when they met back in September.

RACE 9: VIVE LA LIBERTY (#2)

Investment Grade figures to go favored in this finale, but she’s not exactly the kind of horse that’s easy to trust at a short price. She’s taking a significant drop in class while going out for a new barn, and is also trying dirt for the first time. She showed some speed racing at Del Mar for Peter Eurton last year, contesting the pace in her debut, before steadying out of position in the first quarter mile of her last race. She should be quick enough to get in front of these early, but she has to show she can handle this surface. For what it’s worth, the dam won on dirt, so it’s not as if this pedigree is all turf. George Weaver is also 1 for 5 ($1.30 ROI) off a trainer switch with maiden special weight to maiden claiming dropdowns. I’ll use this horse defensively, but there are other options at better prices. I could see making a case for other turf to dirt switches, such as Willow Grove or Stella Mars. The former is perhaps the most interesting of those switching surfaces given that she has a more dirt-oriented pedigree. Yet I was leaning in a different direction. Vive La Liberty looks inferior to this field at first glance, but it’s worth taking a closer look at her effort two back. She basically got pushed off the course in the opening strides, as the rival to her outside veered in sharply, carrying her into the gap. She basically lost 15 or more lengths of position right out of the gate, and actually made a remarkable run to pass half the field and only miss third by about 3 lengths. There’s an argument that she could have been right there and potentially even won with a fair start. They tried a ridiculous spot against stakes company last time which further dirties up her form. Yet she arguably has already won well enough to win a race like this based on the evidence two back, and I think she could get somewhat overlooked here.

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