Newsletter: Racing! Derby fever is starting to creep in

Hello, my name is John Cherwa and welcome back to our horse racing newsletter, as we get a handicapping lesson from Rob Henie.

Things are starting to heat up in Louisville for next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. You can look for coverage both online and in the print editions of The Times starting daily on Monday, when I arrive. I’ve covered a lot of events in my career, but no city does price gouging on hotels like Louisville for the Derby. Strangely, hotels for the Breeders’ Cup are reasonably priced.

Anyway, until then, here are some bits and pieces to satiate your Derby appetite. A lot of them were culled from the notes team at Churchill Downs and Ed Golden at Santa Anita, plus some video help from the tireless Jennie Rees.

-- Roadster and Game Winner, both for Bob Baffert, worked Friday at Santa Anita. Martin Garcia rode both colts, and Roadster did six furlongs in 1:13.80 and Game Winner went seven furlongs in 1:27.


“I loved the way he went,” Baffert said of Roadster to Golden. “Martin said he felt great and didn’t take a deep breath. That’s one thing about this horse — he’ll go a mile and a quarter. We just don’t know how fast. He handles a deep track, and the really good ones will do that.”

Baffert was full of praise for Game Winner too. “Game Winner looked awesome,” he said.

Both horses travel to Louisville on Saturday, joining Improbable.

-- Omaha Beach was scheduled to work Friday, but when the track came up wet, trainer Richard Mandella decided to delay the work a day. Jockey Mike Smith was scheduled to come in and work the colt. Omaha Beach did gallop 1½ miles.


“I think I will have a better chance [to breeze] tomorrow,” Mandella said. “I called Mike [Smith] and told him not to come in. I have [Julien Leparoux] lined up for whenever he works.”

-- Baffert’s Improbable galloped 1½ miles Friday. “He’s looking good, he’s focused, going over the track well,” said Baffert’s chief assistant, Jimmy Barnes. “He’s doing very well in the gate. We’re running him fit basically because he had the whole winter off.… Sometimes it takes horses three to four races to be fit. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Jennie Rees has some videos for you to watch, too.

-- Mandella on Omaha Beach. (Part 1 and Part 2, on his quarter crack)

-- Florent Geroux and agent Doug Breder discuss getting the mount on Roadster. (Here it is.)

Weekly handicapping lesson

It’s time for our weekly handicapping lesson from Rob Henie of the WCHR (West Coast Handicapping Report) and the ECHR (East Coast Handicapping Report). The thinking is if you can know and understand the strategies, it will make you a better handicapper.

Today’s lesson is from the fourth race at Santa Anita. Take it away, Rob.


“It’s an optional claimer at 1⅛ miles. My top selection is SURFING STAR (#6). Whether looking at debut runners or horses off a layoff, the most important question is, ‘Is he or she well meant? The answer with regard to this one is, absolutely. He doesn’t show up on a regular basis, often the case with runners by Bruce Headley’s former stakes winner, Surf Cat, thus, they need a good effort, each and every time they show up, not knowing if they’ll be able to get another effort from him any time soon. If that’s the case, the fact he’s being sent 1⅛ miles tells us they’re not exactly ‘giving him the race,’ but rather, getting right to the heart of what he wants, over this ultra-long distance. The drills are reminiscent of what we used to see for so many years from Bruce, longer ⅞ drills, with that most recent slow work, a great sign, telling us they needed nothing more from him while awaiting this next start. SINGLE.

“Hot / Cold Race Trends: none

“Win Contenders (order of preference): 6-3

“X Out Runners (eliminating on the win end): none

“TOP PICK: SURFING STAR (#6 5-2 Gryder)


The West Coast Handicapping Report can be found at It has been endorsed by leading trainers, handicappers and industry sources.

Santa Anita review


Friday’s feature was a five-furlong allowance/optional claimer for fillies and mares on the turf. It was worth $69,000 under the new purse structure. Gliding Bay ran just off the lead and then went three-wide entering the stretch and rolled to a 1½-length victory under Flavien Prat. Richard Baltas is the trainer.

“She won going 6½ furlongs down the hill [two starts back], but I’ve been running her long a lot and she’s a sprinter,” Baltas told Mike Willman of Santa Anita. “Going into this, I thought five furlongs might be a little short for her, but I think horses tell you sometimes what they want.”

Gliding Bay paid $5.60, $3.40 and $2.40. Littlefirefighter was second and Moon Kitty was third.

Santa Anita preview

Saturday’s nine-race card is not too bad, especially considering what we’ve been seeing lately. There are two stakes races and three allowance races, which is more than half the nine-race card.

And the field sizes, especially for the stakes, are OK — especially after seeing so many five-horse stakes races lately.

The first up is the $100,000 Crystal Water Stakes for Cal-breds going a mile on the turf. The favorite, at 5-2, is Brandothebartender for trainer Craig Dollase and jockey Joe Talamo. He has won two of his last four and six of 24 lifetime. He’s mostly been running sprints but is two for five at this distance.

Second favorite, at 7-2, is the Hunted for Baltas and Tiago Pereira. This will be the 4-year-old gelding’s first stakes race. He was the beaten favorite in his last two races. Post is around 3 p.m.

The big race is the Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Margarita for older fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. Paradise Woods, who in 2017 finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, is the 8-5 favorite for John Shirreffs and Smith. She’s mostly been running upper-level stakes and was third in her last race, the Beholder Mile.

At 3-1 is Lemoona, for Baltas and Aaron Gryder. She won an allowance in her last start and is three for 11 lifetime. Post time is around 4:50 p.m.

Here are the field sizes, in order: 7, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 10, 8, 11.

Big races preview

A look at graded stakes or races worth $100,000 or more on Saturday. All times PDT.

12:37 Parx (7): $100,000 Lyman Handicap, Penn-breds 3 and up, 7 furlongs. Favorite: Call Paul (2-1)

1:04 Parx (8): $100,000 Foxy J.G. Stakes, Penn-bred fillies and mares 3 and up, 7 furlongs. Favorite: Bronx Beauty (3-1)

1:56 Woodbine (8): $100,000 Woodstock Stakes, 3-year-olds, 6 furlongs. Favorite: Yes I Am Free (5-2)

2:51 Belmont (9): $125,000 Elusive Quality Stakes, 4 and up, 7 furlongs on turf. Favorite: Krampus (2-1)

3:02 Santa Anita (5): $100,000 Crystal Water Stakes, Cal-breds 3 and up, 1 mile on turf. Favorite: Brandothebartender (5-2)

3:28 Oaklawn (9): $150,000 Bachelor Stakes, 3-year-olds, 6 furlongs. Favorite: Gray attempt (2-1)

4:35 Golden Gate (9): $100,000 California Derby, 3-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles. Favorite: Sparky Ville (2-1)

4:50 Santa Anita (8): Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Margarita Stakes, fillies and mares 4 and up, 1 1/18 miles. Favorite: Paradise Woods (9-5)

5:10 Golden Gate (10): Grade 3 $250,000 San Francisco Mile, 3 and up, 1 mile. Favorite: Bowies Hero (5-2)

5:30 p.m. Churchill Downs (6): Allowance optional claiming, 3 and up, 1 1/16 miles. Favorites: Keep Quiet, Cowboy Rhythm (5-2)

6:39 Churchill (8): $100,000 William Walker Stakes, 3-year-olds, 5 furlongs on turf. Favorite: Bulletin (4-5)

Ciaran Thornton’s SA pick of the day

SECOND RACE: No. 4 Ciao Luna (4-1)

In the second race, Ciao Luna makes her third start this month for trainer Gary Stute and Joe Talamo rides for the first time. Trainer Ron Ellis has a first off the claim favorite in this race and that I am not using. Joe is not riding for daddy-in-law, the angle I mentioned Friday. The main reason I like this horse is its best races come in the third start in the same month like Saturday. In January, it was the third start that saw this horse win. Top speed in the race adds to the appeal. In race 3, Rocky Policy attracts Talamo riding for trainer Andrew Lerner and again even with Ellis debuting a first time Euro horse, Joe does not ride. Lerner is winning 30% at Santa Anita and is two of three in the last two weeks. The horse shows a sharp work, has blistering early speed and this is the second start off a long layoff. A Talamo daily double.

Friday’s result: Almost a huge win as for us as Etterbay Ucklay drifted from 8-1 to 16-1 only to run a closing second to a 13-1 longshot winner.

Ciaran Thornton is the handicapper for, which offers daily full card picks, longshots of the day, best bets of the day.

Ed Burgart’s Los Alamitos pick of the day

SECOND RACE: No. 5 Nana’s Rule (3-1)

This speedy filly figures to get stalking trip behind expected quarter horse pacesetter L Bar D Bonnie Lee and can open clear lead midway on the far turn. She comes off a strong runner-up try versus nine-time winner Holy Plan and faces no rival who has more than four victories in this 870-yard race. Likely favorite Wicked Sunset shortens up from 4½ furlongs and may lose contact with the leaders from her rail slot.

Final thought

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And now the stars of the show, Friday’s results and Saturday’s entries.

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