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Once thought to be a turf horse, trainer Phil D’Amato’s Midnight Storm returns to Southern California and heads Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. For 3-year-olds and up, the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup will be run for the 78th time on Saturday. In addition to Midnight Storm, Vladimir Cerin’s Follow Me Crev, Bob Baffert’s Cupid, and John Sadler’s up-and-coming Accelerate and veteran Hard Aces (who won the race two years ago) all loom prominently among the field of nine (now eight as Texas Ryano has scratched for G2 Whittingham on Sunday).
Known as the Hollywood Gold Cup from its inception in 1938 through 2013, the first running was won by the immortal Seabiscuit, who carried 133 pounds and was ridden by the legendary George Woolf. With the inaugural running serving as a benchmark for all time, the Gold Cup remains one of America’s most prestigious races.
#1 American Freedom – I’m taking a shot here on the hope that American Freedom runs much better in his second race off of the layoff. He ended 2016 with very solid races in the Haskell (where he finished second to Exaggerator in the slop) and the Travers Stakes (again second, this time to Arrogate). Much like last year, he was extremely disappointing at Churchill Downs, though this time, it was in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes when he ran flat. However, when he’s at his best, I think that he can be one of the top older males in the country this year. The road to that goal starts in this race. I expect a solid effort.
#5 Midnight Storm – He shipped to Oaklawn Park last time as the heavy favorite in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, but he came up empty in the stretch and finished third. The effort was surprising, considering his impressive dirt form this year, so I’m going to draw a line through it and assume that he’ll be better here. Two races back, he came within 3/4 of a length from winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, getting run down late by Shaman Ghost, who then won the Grade 3 Pimlico Special last week. The back class is there for Midnight Storm, so if he gets back to his Santa Anita Handicap form, then he’ll have a big shot.
#8 Accelerate – He’s run fast races in all three of his 2017 starts but hasn’t been able to actually win any of them. However, he’s raced against top-flight competition, including the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes and the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes, so he definitely fits this spot. Perhaps the stretch out today to a mile and a 1/4 could make a difference, as it seems like he’s always running out of time in each of his shorter races. It’s definitely worth a try to pull off the upset in this spot, and there’s a chance that he could get a perfect stalking trip here.
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#2 Follow Me Crev – It’s been an excellent start to the 2017 season for him, winning an allowance race to kick things off before finishing third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and then second in the Grade 2 Californian. Once again, he’s in a great spot to earn more graded stakes black type, but once again, I think that the competition might be a little too tough for him to actually win. He’ll be coming with his run in the end, and hopefully for his connections, it will be enough.
#9 Hard Aces – A fan favorite on the west coast, this horse shows up for races like this every single time. He won this race by a nose in 2014 over another fan favorite, Hoppertunity, but lately, he seems to be more of a long distance specialist. He’s a solid horse to use underneath, no matter what race you’re looking at, but he’ll need a pace meltdown to have a shot at winning this one.
#7 Big John B – He’s been mostly a turf horse during his successful career, but he’s given the dirt a try three times, winning twice. The big difference in today’s race is the distance. His three prior dirt efforts 1 1/2 miles, but he’ll now face higher-quality horses at a shorter distance. Like Hard Aces, he may be more of a long distance specialist, but if the pace is hot, he could make a run at the end.
#6 Cupid – He returns here off of an eight-month layoff, and it’s definitely not an easy spot. Trainer Bob Baffert entered him in the Grade 2 Californian on April 22nd, but he was a late vet scratch, so there are question marks about his health. He’ll have to improve off of his 3-year-old form to compete today, but Bob Baffert horses have been known to do that over and over again throughout the years. At this point, I have no clue what this horse will do.
#4 Prime Attraction – There aren’t many horses in this one that I can definitely throw out, but Prime Attraction is one of them. He tried stakes company last time out in the Grade 2 Californian and didn’t match up well at all, fading from the lead at the 3/4 marker and finishing over 20 lengths behind the winner.
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