Unless I can find a proxy for Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge at Monmouth Park, I'll unfortunately be on the "real-money contest" sidelines until the March 19 event, which now seems like a million years away. I have four hours of nonstop hoops coaching, then family events tomorrow, so unless I find an SSC proxy, I'll focus Saturday on the three Public Handicapper races (where I'm 1-for-10 in '11) from Gulfstream. Take my projections with a grain of salt, though I broke an 0-for-February skid yesterday evening in the Santa Anita free online handicapping challenge.
Mending Hearts (10-to-1 M/L) draws the rail in the Grade 2 Davona Dale and is my pick in her first against winners and stakes competition. The maiden-breaking score on January 7 from the 10 post, plus my view that the Forward Gal Stakes was not all that impressive a benchmark (9-to-1 winner Pomeroy's Pistol received only an 84 Beyer for the 7f sprint in 1:22.89), gives me confidence that the inside draw will help Mending Hearts. Plus, the horse closed well in its two prior tries, which I view favorably in a field that has some early lick. Otherwise, Oh Carole looks like she can step forward, but I'm a little concerned by Julian Leparoux's move to the outside horse and M/L favorite Dancinginherdreams, whom I caution could get boxed out early by speedier horses to her inside (Pomeroy's Pistol and Roxy Gap, the latter of whom was pointed toward the 2010 Breeders Cup and I gave deep consideration at 6-to-1 and appears versatile, but has been beset by health woes and a sporadic work tab since three straight wins as a two-year-old at Woodbine). The January 5 effort in the Grade 3 Old Hat, and the three-week break in the work tab, give me pause as well that this horse might not be fully fit. So, for PH.com I'm going 1-4-9.
Leave of Absence (12-to-1 M/L) can improve and is my lukewarm choice to score in the Grade 2 Hutcheson. There is a TON of early speed in this 7-furlong event in the 9th at Gulfstream, but my knock against some of the classier types in the 9-horse field is that many scored in 5-horse events that did not match the pace I anticipate here. Plus, I think Leave of Absence's problems in the last two races have been at the gate, so the addition of blinkers might improve his focus. All but Leave of Absence will be eager to set the pace, so I'm hoping for sub-22/sub-45 second splits and an extreme meltdown down the stretch. Leave's second-place effort in the $100k Spectacular Bid on Jan. 8 at Gulfstream, where with no room to pass on the rail jockey Rajiv Maragh shifted the horse to about the 5-hole in the stretch, gives me some confidence that the 3-year-old colt can close the field and sit closer to the early pace. Shortening up from a mile can't hurt either. My selections for PH.com are 7-3-8.
Finally, I am not normally a chalk player, but I am enamored with Soldat (2-to-1 M/L) in the Fountain of Youth stakes, going 9 furlongs on the dirt and especially with the rail draw into the quick first turn. Soldat ran a close second in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf to Pluck, who is my top early choice for the Kentucky Derby. I'm not a huge believer in Gourmet Dinner, who faded at the end of the Holy Bull and benefited from great fortune to win at 20-to-1 in the Delta Downs Jackpot. Hitting again on the 5-horse field angle noted above, I want to see 8-to-5 favorite To Honor and Serve beat more than a small field before considering endorsing this one. Otherwise, Bowman's Causeway was in the money in two Gulfstream shots, so maybe I'd throw him underneath: 1-7-5.