On Track With Johnny D: Fun in the Sun Starts With Spa Late Pick 5

Summer fun in the sun begins Saturday when weekends start to include racing from Saratoga and Del Mar. One look at entries for either track will trigger a horseplayer’s mouth to water. Fields are thick and contention runs deep. Through Labor Day weekend, the action will be entertaining and challenging to all players and particularly rewarding to those who cash.


Fun in the Sun, Xpressbet’s weekly online handicapping competition, also begins Saturday and is offered to account holders each Saturday through August 28. A $25 weekly registration fee is required to play, and all fees are returned to players in the form of prizes. That’s right, no takeout! Zero. Zilch. Zip. In fact, the Xpressbet suits will even add a whopping $10,000 to the Saturday, September 4 Final Table kitty! Finish in the top 5 each week to earn cash prizes and seats at the Final Table. Players are required to make live $10 Win wagers on one horse in each of 10 competition races—the last 5 at Saratoga and the first 5 at Del Mar ($100 total). Since competition wagers are live, cash a few and you’ll come out ahead even if you don’t win a prize.


When racing action shifts from one track to another, but particularly with Saratoga and Del Mar, horseplayers are faced with an assortment of dilemmas. For example: How are surfaces playing? Are they favoring speed, closers or playing fair? How will horses handle new surfaces?


To answer some of those questions there are clues in past performances, but many runners will be making first starts at these summer emporiums and don’t have local running lines to reference.


Who’s fit and who’s not? Recent racing and training usually tell the fitness tale, but owners and trainers pointedly aim horses for Saratoga and Del Mar winner’s circles. They’ll do extra morning work to have runners fit and ready following layoffs.


What about classification levels? Again, owners and trainers want to win at summer hot spots, and they’ll dip horses in claiming price to have a better chance to celebrate with family and friends. Horseplayers are left to sort out who’s live and who’s in the discount bin?


Below is one man’s opinion regarding the first five Fun in the Sun competition races which coincide with the inaugural weekend Spa Late Pick 5. Hopefully, we can help players off to a rousing start in the competition and in the pocketbook.



Saturday Late Pick 5

(Selections made for fast track and firm turf)


Race 7


Five and one-half furlongs (Turf)


#1 Happymac is part of a 3-horse entry, has speed and will be trying turf for the first time for top connections. He’s a 3-year-old and has drawn the rail for this. He’ll leave running and will go as far as he can. He comes off a sharp win going a furlong more than this on dirt at Churchill June 20, so he’s fit. Chance.


#2 Battle Station has a sparkling Spa turf record with 3 wins in 5 starts, including a restricted stakes victory last year. He’s also sharp at the distance with 4 wins in 9 attempts. He won at this level going six panels at Belmont in May and has raced well with several others in here. He barely defeated #1A Shekky Shebaz three races back. He’s 6-years-old and probably has his best behind him but there are reasons to like him.


#3 Chimney Rock drops for a tag for the first time and has a win over the course and never has been worse than third in 5 tries at the distance. He’s a 4-year-old Louisiana-bred who seems a cut below the fastest ones in here.


#4 Souper Dormy has improved at 4 and comes off a pair of close finishes going the distance at Churchill Downs at about this level. He races from off the pace and ought to have some early foot to chase. He’s a question mark but not a complete toss.


#5 Competitive Saint has been away since October but has a win and a second over this layout at this distance. He’d be a surprise to us.


#6 Duress ran well in a first start since November when third at this level over six furlongs on Belmont turf. He has an even running style and should get first run on the tiring leaders. Jose Ortiz, who won with him two back, returns in the saddle.


#7 Guildsman makes his first start off the claim for trainer Robert Falcone and he’s good with this move—29%. The troubled claimed effort was this 4-year-old Grade 3 winner’s first race for a tag. His best efforts came a year ago as he rallied from off the pace to win back-to-back races at Presque Isle (synthetic) and Kentucky Downs (turf).


#1A Shekky Shebaz is a 6-year-old with 2 wins and a second over the Spa grass and 6 in-the-money races out of 9 starts at the distance. He’s been freshened by trainer Christophe Clement since failing to hang on behind #2 Battle Station at this level in May. He also lost to that same runner in September at the Spa. This one has back races that can win and his recent stuff isn’t bad. The short break should refresh him and jockey Irad Ortiz knows him well. He’s the one to beat. Look for him to stalk #1 Happymac early.


#8 Gear Jockey cuts back from route races and needs a hot pace. He’s been freshened since May and has a second from one start over the course going one mile and one-sixteenth. He was a close third in the 2019 one-mile BC Juvenile Turf.


#10 Mount Travers was claimed out his last race for $50k and moves into this tougher spot for trainer Joe Sharp. Seems in tough off dirt form.


#11 Ghoul closed well to be second at this level in a common race with some of these. That was his second start since returning east from Santa Anita. He raced twice at the Spa last year and caught ‘good’ tracks both times. He closed to be second and third and figures to be firing late again. A wide trip could be his downfall.


Bottom Line: This is why wagering on races at Saratoga are so frustratingly wonderful. A player could make a case for most of the runners above and no one would attempt to talk them out of playing them. Our advice: Don’t take any wooden nickels in here. If you’re playing Fun in the Sun, take a cut at a decent priced horse in here and hope you get lucky.


Use: As many as you can. Seriously. We suggest #1A, 2, #6, #8


Race 8

Alw 103000N1X

Seven Furlongs


#1 Beau Liam draws the rail in this first level allowance race worth $103,000. That’s right, over $100k for non-winners of a race other than maiden or claiming. Gotta love the Spa. This colt romped home convincingly in fast time at nearly 6-1 first out at Churchill. Just like his barnmate in the previous race, this colt will need to flee the rail in a sprint. That’s fine but not ideal. He’s got speed and jock Santana’s not adverse to using it. Could be a good one.


#3 Newbomb has speed but needed to ship to Monmouth to crack maiden. He could cause an issue for #1 Beau Liam and heat the early pace up to a boiling point.


#4 Striking Speed changes barns to Rob Atras and he’s 23% with new players. This 4-year-old gelding has a win and a second in two tries over Spa dirt. He ran well going one mile at Aqueduct in December and hasn’t been out since. He was claimed out of a $30k maiden Spa score in August of last year.


#5 Tea for Ten has route speed and has failed to carry the water all the way home in his last two starts—both against graded stakes company in the Gr. 3 Nashua and the ‘sloppy’ Gr. 2 Remsen. He’s been favored in two of three races at distances from one mile to one mile and one-eighth. He’ll add Lasix for the first time in here and the seven furlongs might be a good trip for him. He hasn’t been out since early December and trainer Shug McGaughey is 21% off long layoffs.


#7 Witsel makes his second start and first for Trainer Chad Brown. First out he romped at Tampa at 5-1 odds. Jockey Irad Ortiz will ride and he’s 22% with Brown. Lasix will be added for the first time. He’s been working steadily and clocker reports can be consulted to see if he’s been in company with #10 Crowded Trade or not and, if so, who’s been going the better of the two.


#10 Crowded Trade is another Chad Brown-trained runner and he’ll be cutting back in distance from a challenging early 3-year-old campaign that had him starting in the Gr. 3 Gotham (2nd by a nose), Gr. 2 Wood (3rd ) and Gr. 1 Preakness (well-beaten 5th). The class relief alone makes this one a huge threat in here.


#11 Wudda U Think Now has 3 wins in 8 starts and that gives him an experience edge. If one of the high-profile 3-year-olds isn’t all that and a bag of chips, this consistent 4-year-old might take some beating. He’s had most of his success at the state-bred level, so these are tougher.


#12 Mahaamel was well bet in a pair of Belmont starts at seven furlongs and ran well in both. First out he was second to next-out winner First Captain and then, when blinkers were added, he romped in the mud. This outside post ought to be perfect for him as he stalks the speed with jockey John Velazquez aboard for trainer Todd Pletcher.


Bottom Line: #12 Mahaamel should have ever opportunity to win this. Question remains: Is he good enough? #10 Crowded Trade has run the best against the best competition and #5 Ten for Ten also has done well against graded company. Would be a bit surprised if the winner wasn’t one of those three.


Use: #5, #10, #12


Race 9


2-Year-olds – $150k – Grade 3

Six Furlongs


#1 Wit hails from the Todd Pletcher stable and reunites with jockey Irad Ortiz. First time out they left foes in the dust over a ‘good’ Belmont strip in solid time at a very short price. That afternoon they rallied from off the pace to win comfortably. Similar tactics will be needed here, especially if the Practical Joke colt breaks a bit slowly again. Six furlongs should only help this guy and the Pletcher/I.Ortiz combo is a silly 33%!


#2 Candy Landing disposed of foes easily in his first start going five and one-half furlongs at Churchill Downs. He showed speed and kicked clear for trainer Brendan Walsh, who knows his way around an equine. The 17-1 odds are a bit puzzling, but the Twirling Candy colt’s ability isn’t in question. Count him in.


#4 Trust Our Journey is an American Pharoah colt that scored going four and one-half furlongs first out at Gulfstream and then faded late in a ‘muddy’ renewal of the Tremont at Belmont. He’ll need much better in here.


#5 Dance Coade re-rallied to win at 13-1 going four and one-half furlongs at Parx June 28. These are tougher but there’s some fight in the PA-bred.


#6 Maryland Brando absolutely destroyed a maiden field going five furlongs at Delaware Park in early June. The third-place finisher in that race came back to win next out. Still, the water gets deeper for this one at the Spa.


#7 Ottoman Empire did everything right after breaking slowly in a maiden race going five furlongs at Churchill. He attracts Jose Ortiz to replace James Graham, who rides #2 Candy Landing for mainstay Brendan Walsh. The son of Classic Empire’s victory wasn’t that fast but the runner-up came back to win his next start.


#8 Due Vini arrives at the Spa off a solid but unspectacular Monmouth maiden score. He’ll need more in here.


#9 Headline Report hails from the dangerous Wesley Ward outfit that has not had much success in graded stakes races at Saratoga. That’s surprising because Ward does so very well elsewhere with 2-year-old runners. This guy looked powerful winning first out going four and one-half furlongs at Keeneland in April. It was just a 5-horse field, though.


#10 Kavod just missed last out in the ‘muddy’ Tremont at Belmont. Time before that he won a five-furlong maiden dash. He’ll need to keep improving to defeat this bunch.


Bottom Line: These 2-yer-old stakes races are always a bit tricky. Best is to go with the fastest runners and those are #1 Wit, #2 Candy Landing and longshot #5 Dance Code. #7 Ottoman Empire smells like he could have more in the tank. #1 Wit has the added Pletcher/I. Ortiz factor, although the rail is a bit of a concern as he’ll probably need to go around horses at some point.


Use: #1 Wit, #2 Candy Landing are most obvious.

Deeper tickets might consider #5 Dance Code and #7 Ottoman Empire at prices.


Race 10


Fillies & Mares Four-Years-Old and Upward – $500k – Grade 1

One Mile and One-Eighth (Turf)


#1 La Signare has racked up the frequent flier miles. The 6-year-old mare has raced at 7 different tracks since Jan. 2020, mostly in Grade 1 or Grade 2 company. She came closest to nabbing the brass ring last out in the Gr. 1 Gamely at Santa Anita when they missed by one half-length at this distance. These appear tougher.


#2 Pocket Square is a Group 3 winner in France who looked sensational winning an allowance race over a ‘good’ Keeneland turf course in April. She looked so good, in fact, that she was a lukewarm favorite over the dynamic duo of #8 Althiqa and #6 Summer Romance, first two finishers in the Gr. 1 Just A Game. A very wide trip didn’t help Pocket Square that afternoon, but her late-running style suggests the same may happen in here.


#3 Magic Attitude won the 2020 Gr. 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational at one mile and one-quarter and took the Gr. 2 Sheepshead Bay at one mile and three-eighths. This may be a bit too short for her best.


#4 Vigilantes Way dominated the Gr. 3 Eatontown last out and would need much more to win this. She is sharp, will be close to the lead and wins races (5 out of 12). Still…


#5 Harvey’s Lil Goil raced close to the pace to win the Gr. 1 Q E II Cup at Keeneland at this distance over a ‘good’ course. She then just missed by a neck in the Gr. 1 BC Filly & Mare Turf in November. She returned to win the Gr. 3 Beaugay in May but then disappointed over a yielding surface in the Gr. 2 New York. She’s won 5 of 11 lifetime and has some pace. She may not win, but she’s liable to give challengers a fight for their money.


#6 Summer Romance was unlucky to lose after running lights out at 7-1 in the Gr. 1 Just A Game over a ‘good’ Belmont turf course. Charlie Appleby-trained stablemate #8 Althiqa ran her down. Expect jockey Luis Saez to use similar front-running tactics in this meeting at one-eighth of a mile farther. This 4-year-old filly probably won’t have to go as fast as she did last time and that might make the difference. She’s not as accomplished as others in here, but her early speed makes her dangerous. At worst, she figures as a quality ‘rabbit’ for her stablemate once more.


#7 Lemista just missed in May to #5 Harvey’s Lil Goil in the Gr. 3 Beaugay. In 2019-20 this 4-year-old filly reeled off four consecutive victories in Ireland, culminating in a Group 2 tally over ‘yielding’ turf at this distance. Top jock Irad Ortiz returns aboard the daughter of Raven’s Pass for turf master Chad Brown. If the course is soggy, and it could well be that way, give this one extra credit as she handled veritable bogs in Ireland. She’s really dangerous in here.


#8 Althiqa got up in the shadow of the finish to nail stablemate #6 Summer Romance in the Gr. 1 Just A Game at one mile on grass. It was her second group or graded stakes win and her first group or grade 1, she also took the Group 2 Cape Verdi at Meydan in January at one mile. A mile may be her best distance as she appeared to lose her punch going one mile and one-eighth in February at Meydan in the Gr. 2 Balanchine. If that’s the case, she may take more money than she deserves to and could be suspect in the final eighth of a mile. Plus, that last effort was a big ask first out in the US and she could react from the exertion.


Bottom Line: #6 Summer Romance and #8 Althiqa appear the ones to beat. However, take a long look at #7 Lemista. She’s trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Irad Ortiz and has a series of five furlong works that say she’s fit and ready for her best.


Use: #7 Lemista

This could be a good spot to take a bit of a stand and single her against the obvious stablemates #6 Summer Romance and #8 Althiqa. That will enable you to go deep in some of these other puzzles.


Race 11

Md Sp Wt 100k

Three-Year-Olds & Upward

Seven Furlongs (Turf)


#3 Deferred Taxes moves from turf to dirt after pretty much disappointing in three starts. He did manage second twice and took money both times. It’s a guess how he’ll handle dirt and having it kicked in his face for the first time in the afternoon.


#4 Southern Flag has run reasonably well in a pair of one-mile races at Belmont. Those should set him up well for this cut back to a seven-furlong distance. He had trouble first out when second, beaten a mere neck. Count him in the mix.


#5 Lemon Drop Road has had chances in six previous starts. His last, second by less than a length was his best. He’s fit and experienced.


#6 Abaan goes first time for Todd Pletcher, a 25% move. He’s been gelded and comes off two runner-up efforts at one mile and one-sixteenth at Churchill Downs. He hasn’t been out since October, but that’s little concern because Pletcher is 28% off such layoffs.


#7 Ducale is a son of Twirling Candy bred by Juddmonte Farms who dead-heated for second first time out at Churchill. Trainer Brad Cox is 30% with maiden second time starters and 27% with those off 31-60 days, according to Daily Racing Form stats. Count him in the mix big time.


#8 Askin for a Baskin has the fastest last race according to Beyer Speed Figures and switches to top jock Irad Ortiz off a runner-up effort behind Mahaamel (in Race 8). This could be his first try over ‘fast’ dirt because he started on turf and then caught a ‘muddy’ main track second out. Blinkers go on for this and trainer Jeremiah Englehart is 25% with the move.


#9 Laughing Boy added Lasix last out, set the pace and faded going a one-turn mile at Churchill in June. That’s a decent set up race off a poor performance first out in November. Jose Ortiz rides for trainer Ken McPeek. Not awful at what should be a decent price.


Bottom Line: Yep, these are Saratoga races, make no mistake. There are many ways to go in each and every leg of this Late Pick 5. Hit this one and you’re going to get paid handsomely. We’re looking outside for the best in here. #7 Ducale, #8 Askin for a Baskin and #9 Laughing Boy have enough positives to win. #4 Southern Flag’s pair of one-turn Belmont miles should set him up well for this cut back. They are not locks and there are many ways to go. Bet a deuce and stay loose!


Use: #4 Southern Flag, #7 Ducale, #8 Askin for a Baskin, #9 Laughing Boy


$.50 Pick 5 Suggested Play ($96)

Race 7 #1A, #2, #6, #8

Race 8 #5, #10, #12

Race 9 #1, #2

Race 10 #7

Race 11 #4, #7, #8, #9


Race On!






On Track With Johnny D: Fun in the Sun Starts With Spa Late Pick 5

On Track with Johnny D |