OPENING DAY AT GULFSTREAM PARK
Presuming he makes it back from Saudi Arabia on time, jockey John Velazquez is looking to get off to a fast start Saturday on opening day at Gulfstream Park.
Johnny V, a two-time Eclipse Award-winner, as we speak is en route back from Ridayh, where he rode two days, and is scheduled to land Friday evening at Miami International, where he will be met by his agent, Angel Cordero Jr., himself a two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider.
A good night's sleep, and Johnny V, who finished fourth in the national money standings in 2008, will be ready to ride seven of the nine races on the Gulfstream opener -- and all have major shots.
In '08, Johnny V rode 215 winners from 1177 rides -- an 18 per cent clip -- and his mounts earned $14.9 million. Garrett Gomez was first with $23 million, followed by Rafael Bejarano ($16.4 million), and Edgar Prado ($15.1 million).
Curiously, Gomez is a lock to win the Eclipse although he finished a remote 25th in races won with 214 winners from 1023 rides.
As for Velazquez, his opening-day business at Gulfstream includes the likely favorites in both stakes, and a pair of well-bred first-starters from main man Todd Pletcher.
From a handicapping perspective, it would seem to be good business to use Johnny V on most -- if not all -- your exotic plays.
Here's a look at his Magnificent Seven:
Sonofawitch (#4) comes off a second as the 6-5 favorite for trainer Peter Walder at Delaware Park. With his natural speed, the 4-year-old gelding will be a major player from his inside post as first-time JV in the mile race for $10,000 claimers.
Silent Valor (#7), a $320,000 yearling from the Toddster, will be favored in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes, a six-furlong test for 3-year-olds.
As a 2-year-old, Silent Valor, a grandson of Tale of the Cat, won the Sapling Stakes as the chalk at Monmouth Park, then was beaten three lengths both in the Norfolk and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In fact, in the BC Juvenile, he bobbled at the start, fell back to last, and made up eight lengths on the winner Midshipman through the last half-mile.
This will be Johnny's second time on Silent Valor. He rode SV in the colt's debut at Keeneland -- a second to Run Away and Hide, who promptly shipped to New York, and won the Saratoga Special before sustaining a career-ending injury.
Hold Your Ground (#1) will be a stretch threat in this $42,000 allowance for older horses at a mile on the grass.
The 5-year-old son of Hennessy has been training bullets at Palm Meadows for his first start since April when he finished fourth with Gomez from post 12 in a mile and a half turf event at Keeneland.
Checklist (#11) is a $400,000 Gone West firster from the Pletcher barn. The bay is the first foal of Yearly Report, who won first pop by a pole for Bob Baffert, and went on to win five of her first six starts, including the Black-Eyed Susan and Delaware Oaks.
Unraced at 2, Checklist has been working long and hard at Palm Meadows for his belated debut. He will be no worse than third choice to More Than Willing in the $40,000 maiden-special at three-quarters.
The stakes-placed Blues Street (#8) will be no worse than third choice in this $44,000 allowance for older horses at a mile and a 16th on the turf.
The Pletcher-trained 5-year-old son of Street Cry came off an 18-month layoff to make up 10 lengths for a dead-heat with Yield Bogey in a mile turfer at Aqueduct.
The gelding has been worse than third only once in six non-stakes.
Johnny V picks up the mount on Now a Victor (#8) in the $100,000 Hal's Hope for older horses at a mile because regular rider Dominguez opts to stay in New York to ride the odds-on Haynesfield in the Count Fleet.
A 5-year-old son of Yankee Victor trained by Mike Trombetta, Now A Victor has won four of five starts, inlcuding the '07 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct. His only loss was a close-up second to Actin Good a month earlier in the Pegasus on Breeders' Cup Day at Monmouth Park.
Following a year on the shelf, Now A Victor came back to win a Big A sprint allowance by two lengths as the stick.
Now A Victor may go favored in the Hal's Hope, the field of which is so contentious that Storm in May, who finished second to Curlin in the '07 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, is listed on the bottom of the 14 horses in the DRF ratings.
Tiger Tracks (#4), a firster from Tabor/Pletcher, has been training lights-out at Palm Meadows for his unveiling in this $40,000 maiden-special for 3-year-olds at a mile.
No price here...considering his sire is Storm Cat, and he is the first foal of Paiota Falls, who won four of her five career starts.
The main threat, next door in the five-hole, is Prospective Love, twice third as the favorite for trainer McPeek at Churchill Downs.
Needless to say, this writer's daily Best Bet selections for Aqueduct and Gulfstream are available daily at 1-888- 612-2283 or right here online. See below for my BIG Opening Day offer at Gulfstream Park this Saturday.
Regardless of how he performs Saturday, look for Velazquez -- and Cordero -- to enjoy another big year.
"We just need to find a Derby horse," Angel told me Friday morning, "...let me know if you see something."
Save for being "five pounds over," Cordero says he's dead fit, and will spend his Florida mornings doing what he likes best -- getting on horses.
But no more comebacks.
Angel insists that his ride in the Hall of Fame Challenge back in October at Santa Anita was his last.
Incidentally, include Cordero among Gasper Moschera's supporters for the Gas Man's bid for the Hall of Fame.
It was learned that Moschera is one of 25 trainers who made the first cut for '09.
"Gasper belongs in the Hall," said Cordero, himself a Hall of Famer, "...he certainly has the numbers. I rode a lot of winners for Gasper. He's a good man and a great trainer. I'd like to see him make it."
Mention earlier of Curlin reminds this writer of the following piece that appeared on the sports gossip page last Sunday in the New York Post:
"Jess Jackson, campaigning for Curlin to be voted Horse of the Year again, sent packages to members of the National Turf Writers Association (which votes for Horse of the Year, with ballots due in January).
"The Christmas Eve packages contained a DVD of all Curlin's races, a holiday greeting card from Jackson and his wife, and a bottle of wine from Jackson's winery with a picture of Curlin on the label."
One turf writer told me, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that it would take more than a bottle of wine to make him change his vote.
Finally, here's another piece of distressing news:
In a page one story by Bob Jordan in the Asbury Park Press, it was revealed that Freehold Raceway, the oldest standardbred racetrack in the country, will be slashing its purses by 25 per cent. Poor business and the failure of the State to deliver promised purse supplements are blamed.
"This is the last straw," says trainer Ned Urbanski. "You can't afford to keep and train racehorses for this kind of money."
What kind of money?
The average total daily purse money for an 11-race Freehold program now is $36,000.
That's TOTAL purse money.
Finally, two football notes:
In introducing the coin toss at the Rose Bowl, Brent Mussberger noted that the Penn State and USC captains are meeting with the referees.
One would think that, after 50 years calling football, Mussberger would know that there is only one referee.
Earth to Brent: They are OFFICIALS!
In college bowls, the "under" through Thursday is on a 14-3 roll.
Do you like plenty of action?
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Last year, Opening Day at Gulfstream Park, January 3, 2008, was a big day of collecting for me and my clients. Take a look at the selections my customers received:
Race 1: Catch A Thrill ($30.80)
Race 2: Hold That Prospect ($7.00)
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Double Action Private Parlay
Race 5: Bentrovhto ($22.00)
Race 9: Trigger Fish Lane ($7.60)
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$5 Longshot Sleeper: Race 7: Zulmin ($96.50)
No one has the background and connections to find the winners like I do. I covered the horses for The New York Post and the years of cultivating my contacts in the shedrow have given me finely honed handicapping skills--the kind that enabled me to pick winners every day for an astonishing 207 consecutive days! That's a world record and its fully documented in The Daily Racing Form. I selected horses 48 hours in advance, without the benefit of knowing the morning line or late scratches, without up-to-the-minute information from the backstretch. And I still set the world record!
The fruits of my thirty-plus year career is contacts up and down the circuit and throughout the country. Imagine being able to exchange insights with a Scott Lake, a Ron McAnally, a John Servis or a Steve Asmussen. Speaking of Asmussen, when racing's leading trainer of 2008 , says of me, "John is very accurate in assessing how a race will be run. He is a solid handicapper," that is praise indeed. These are the high level contacts I have dealings with every day - along with jockey agents and informants along every backstretch in the country. Stakes, claimers, routes, sprints, turf, dirt - race after race, I know which runners are being "sent" to get the money and whether they can get the job done. And I have it better then the very people I get information from. As they let me into their little corner of the world, I have the benefit of seeing the big picture, replete with all the other information I've garnered elsewhere, and I'm the only one who can piece all of it together.
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KEN MCPEEK, Trainer of 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava:
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LARRY JONES, Trainer of Derby Runner Ups Eight Belles and Hard Spun:
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