RACE 3: SEVEN LILIES (#1)
Former stakes winner Runaway Lute has struggled with consistency over the past few seasons, so it was encouraging to see him rebound first start off the claim for Mertkan Kantarmaci last time out. He was only facing three rivals, but he showed good early speed and was just run down late by the capable performer Clench. Some might argue that the rail was a significant advantage on Feb. 8, but the bias seemed to intensify later in the day and this guy ran in the second race. A repeat of that last performance will make him tough here, and his early speed gives him a distinct advantage in a race where his two main rivals are deep closers. I’m using him prominently, but there are a couple of rivals to consider. The Caretaker would be a terror in a spot like this based on his form from late last year. So was it just the distance that derailed him last time? That was an uncharacteristically poor effort from a horse who had previously been the model of consistency. He got a fair pace to close into, but had no answer after being devoid of early speed. Furthermore, his claim was voided by the vet out of that last start, and now he hasn’t been seen for 7 weeks. There’s no drop in class, but you still have to be concerned that he’s heading the wrong way for this barn. Between the two logical closing alternatives, I strongly prefer Seven Lilies. This stronger half of the Robert Klesaris entry is dropping in class after achieving mixed results at the tougher N2X/$40k level. He won impressively two back on Jan. 30 in a performance that would make him formidable against this group. However, his two surrounding efforts for the current connections were poor. Yet he had a right to not care for the surface and distance on Jan. 3, and last time he was compromised by a slow pace. He is meeting a softer field this time, and is clearly capable at his best, but he does find himself in another race that doesn’t feature much early speed. I’m hoping Luis Cardenas can keep him within striking distance of Runaway Lute early. I also don’t mind having Manifest Destiny as a backup option, as he is an intriguing claim by these connections.
RACE 5: DUST DEVIL (#5)
The three-horse entry is likely to be a prohibitive favorite in this spot, though the trio is clearly led by the Mike Maker trained Advance Notice. This 4-year-old will make his seventh attempt to break through at this $50k starter allowance level since winning his debut at Saratoga last summer. His tactical speed always makes him dangerous in these races, but he’s gotten very good trips in his last couple of starts and has been unable to translate those into victories. He really had no excuse to lose last time after setting a moderate pace while riding a strong rail on Feb. 21. He finished just over 4 lengths ahead of today’s rival Dust Devil, but that one undoubtedly had the tougher trip. Dust Devil was about 4-wide every step of the way while rating off the pace in the early going. He made decent progress passing the quarter pole, but just couldn’t sustain his run over that somewhat biased racetrack. Dust Devil showed that he was capable of running well enough to merit a chance at this level two back when he easily defeated $40k conditioned claimers going this distance in an impressive performance. He’s clearly maintained strong form since the claim by Mertkan Kantarmaci, though he will have to hope for a more favorable pace setup since the only horse who seems quick enough to apply pressure to Advance Notice is his Repole-owned stablemate Democratic Values. Grit and Glory could also attract some support here, but his last victory is dressed up by riding that Feb. 21 gold rail all the way. That $12.5k claimer was relatively strong for the level, but he would have to do better to compete against the aforementioned pair.
RACE 6: AIR ATTACK (#2)
The 7-year-old Control Group loves to win races, having crossed the wire first in over a third of his 42 lifetime starts. He will attempt to make it two in a row after just getting up to win by a nose when last seen on Feb. 15. He got a great trip in that spot, stalking on the rail on a day that featured an inside bias, before angling out to rally in the two-path through the lane. While he’s content to rate, he also possesses tactical speed that could come into play in this largely paceless affair. He’s a 7-time winner at this 1 1/8 miles distance and has run plenty of races at or around this class level that make him the horse to beat. I’m using him, but I do have some questions about his overall form at a short price. Another horse who could benefit from a slow early pace is Kumar. This runner’s last few performances have been lackluster, but they have all come against significantly tougher company. He had little chance last time against the likes of Family Biz and Limonite, and prior to that he was over his head at the N2X optional claiming level. He’s capable of competing in cheaper races like this when he’s at his best, though it is fair to question whether 9 furlongs is pushing him past his limit. He’ll be a much better price than Control Group, so he’s worth including. Yet my top pick is Air Attack. This horse ran well at the same level and distance two back, engaging in a protracted duel with eventual winner Super Dude before fading to second. While it might appear that he regressed last time, he was wide against a rail bias that day and actually did well to make a premature move on the far turn prior to fading. Now he makes his first start off the claim for Rob Atras, who is 9 for 29 (31%, $2.30 ROI) first off the claim in dirt routes over the past 5 years. Air Attack should relish stretching back out to two turns, and showed two back that he has the tactical speed to work out the right trip in this field.