The handful of racetracks still running are showing day by day that horse racing can be conducted in the midst of a pandemic, but each is almost certainly one COVID-19 case away from being closed.
On what normally would be a busy weekend, with a dozen or more tracks running and excitement building for the Kentucky Derby, only Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Remington Park and Tampa Bay Downs will offer thoroughbred racing.
The horses will be performing for an audience of none, with the public prohibited from attending but encouraged to bet from afar.
Contrast that with what has happened in California, where local public health officials shut down Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, despite the fact that neither had reported a COVID-19 case.
Somehow Los Alamitos has evaded the “shut it down” movement and will present its usual quarter horse twilight cards this weekend, barring further intervention.
The rush to judgment in California was unfortunate, as it cost a lot of people their jobs and cut off a small but desirable revenue stream at a time when the state’s coffers are being rapidly depleted by the coronavirus crisis.
It also doesn’t appear that health officials have been even-handed in enforcing restrictions on public gatherings imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report posted photos Tuesday on Twitter showing a crowd of people queued up at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, just a stone’s throw from shuttered Santa Anita, clearly violating social distancing directives.
Mixed signals from @lapublichealth, which forces closure of @santaanitapark races in Arcadia despite strict COVID-19 sanitary protocols and extremely limited access, yet across the street LA County Arboretum is welcoming large sold-out public crowds. pic.twitter.com/2oxv2JPCHI
— Ray Paulick (@raypaulick) April 8, 2020
I’m not knocking authorities from wanting to be cautious when it comes to enabling the virus to spread, but in this case, it sure looks as if they went off half-cocked.
New #RJhorseracing contest
As long as tracks are running, the #RJhandicappers will be at their work stations trying to solve the races. This week, as we launch another three-month contest, the quarry is two Oaklawn stakes races Saturday that drew deep fields: the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile and the $200,000 Oaklawn, a 1⅛-mile stakes race for 3-year-olds inserted into the schedule to provide a bridge to the rescheduled Arkansas Derby, which now will be run May 2 as a result of the postponement of the Kentucky Derby.
In the former, the handicapping crew is siding with 3-1 morning line favorite Tom’s d’Etat, despite the fact that he’s returning from a six-month vacation. They see Mr. Money (4-1) edging Snapper Sinclair (10-1) in the minor placings. Interestingly, they are shunning Improbable, the Bob Baffert-trained second choice on the morning line at 7-2, presumably because he drew on the far outside in the 14-horse field.
I can’t fault the gang’s logic, as Tom’s d’Etat should be tough to beat from the cozy 3 hole, but I’ll try to do so with Kershaw (20-1), who is taking a big step up in class but may get a perfect trip stalking just off the other speed horses in the field. I’ll go with Tom’s d’Etat to place and Long Range Toddy (10-1) to show.
In the Oaklawn Stakes, which drew an interesting cast of sophomores still nursing Triple Crown dreams, the crowd ’cappers appear to have refreshed their memories when it comes to Baffert’s exploits at the Arkansas track. They are solidly backing Thousand Words, the 5-2 morning line favorite, to rebound from a disappointing run in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 7. They have Basin (7-2) and Taishan (8-1) fighting it out for second, with the former prevailing by a whisker.
I’ll part company with my peeps on this one and go with Farmington Road (6-1), who finished a better-than-looked fourth in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 15 when he lost lots of ground on the turns. I’ll use Thousands Words to place and Basin (7-2) to show.
Ellis Starr’s Oaklawn Stakes analysis
Taishan really came into his own last month and even though unproven at this stakes level may be the one to beat in the Oaklawn Stakes. Stretching out to two turns in the second start of his career last November, Taishan improved off an inauspicious fifth-place debut to win by one length and earning a moderately strong 96 Equibase Speed Figure for the maiden win. Given two months off to mature, Taishan returned in the Sham Stakes and although well regarded at 2 to 1 was a well-beaten fourth to a pair of next out stakes winners in Authentic and Azul Coast. Shipped to Oaklawn to get on the Derby trail, Taishan ran poorly when fifth in the Southwest Stakes in February. Something changed significantly in his next start on March 14 at Oaklawn, where he went to the lead and never looked back when ridden out to a four and three-quarter length win. I think that something was the jockey change to Joel Rosario, as well as a change in tactics. With Rosario back in the saddle today and with that last effort earning Taishan a career-best, and more importantly field high, last race figure of 98, Taishan may take some beating in this race.
Basin had a fine 2-year-old campaign that saw him missing by a nose in his debut last June followed by two wins. The latter was a powerful 6 1/2-length win in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, which earned a 96 figure. More than six months passed before Basin raced again, that effort coming in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Not only was Basin giving away a lot of recency to most of the field, he also had some traffic trouble with a quarter mile to run. Nevertheless, he rallied a bit to get third as the top two horses drew off by seven lengths. Likely to improve in his second start off a layoff and being a half-brother (same dam) to multiple stakes winner Rise Up ($1.2 million in earnings), Basin could continue to move forward off the 89 figure earned in his comeback and could be a strong factor in the Oaklawn Stakes.
Thousand Words won the first three starts of his career, a sprint and two routes, the latter both stakes. Following a game win by a neck in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December (101 figure), Thousand Words won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by three-quarters of a length in February with an even better 107 figure. Sent to post as the second betting choice behind his stablemate Authentic (also trained by Bob Baffert) in the San Felipe Stakes last month, Thousand Words never showed the spark he had in his previous three races, checking in a well-beaten fourth. Since then, the colt has put in three strong workouts and appears to be back in good spirits. Being a son of Pioneer of the Nile, who sired Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, there’s little doubt Thousand Words can handle the 9-furlong trip of the Oaklawn Stakes, so the only question is whether the colt is physically and mentally ready to run as well as he did prior to the San Felipe in order to be competitive.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Background (87), Coach Bahe (88), Digital (100), Farmington Road (100), Flap Jack (92), Gold Street (98), Mr. Big News (91), Shoplifted (108), Sir Rick (88) and Something Natural (91).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.