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Friday, June 5, 2009

Brisbane Winter Carnival

In addition to the Belmont Stakes, Epsom Derby and Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby), there’s excellent racing Down Under this weekend, as the Brisbane Winter Carnival features three G1 and two G2 events, including the venerable Stradbroke Handicap. The turf is “Heavy” after a very rainy week, so definitely keep on eye out for those wet trackers. For those interested in watching (or betting), you can view the races either at or via Twinspires beginning this evening at 10:10 p.m. Eastern. Follow me on Twitter for comments as the races unfold. Here’s my preview of the five key races:

G1 T.J. Smith Stakes (Race 4)

A relatively new race (first run in 1976), the 1600 meters (8 furlongs, or one mile) A$500,000 T. J. Smith is for two-year-old fillies, colts and geldings—and four fillies have won in the last 20 years, including Apercu in 2007. This year, only three fillies—Funtantes, Impulsive Dream, and Linky Dink—will start in the field of 14. Of those three, Impulsive Dream looks best after a second-place finish in the G2 Sires’ Produce Stakes at Eagle Farm on May 30. By Encosta de Lago, she should relish the wet going, as should Funtantes who's already won twice on Slow tracks. The Sires’ winner, the High Chaparral gelding Shoot Out (out of a Pentire mare), is undefeated in two starts for trainer John Wallace, and bred to run all day, but my choice here is Choistar who has already placed first and a close-up second on heavy tracks, and already has a win over the 1600m distance. Plus, his jockey Craig Williams is just on fire and he gets a nice barrier (4). For a longshot chance, One Lickety Split fascinates me—he’s a direct damline descendent of the great mare Shuvee, through her best daughter Shukey.

4. Choistar 13. Impulsive Dream 1. Shoot Out

G1 Stradbroke Handicap (Race 5)

Undoubtedly the highlight of the Brisbane winter carnival, the 1400 meters (7 furlongs) Stradbroke Handicap has been run since 1890, and this year’s event is worth a cool A$1 million. While mature horses often fare best in the Stradbroke, this year’s potential superstar is a three-year-old filly Ortensia, who has been the subject of much controversy over the past week. Her regular jockey Craig Williams committed to riding All Silent before it was certain Ortensia would be invited to the Stradbroke; trainer Tony Noonan ask the Queensland stewards to hold Williams to his promise of following Ortensia wherever she went, and got that ruling from them on Wednesday—before trainer Grahame Begg pulled All Silent from the race due to the heavy conditions (and All Silent’s poor workout on Tuesday over the track).

Three-year-old fillies haven’t fared too badly in the recent years, represented with winners Cele’s Image (1964), Canterbury Belle (1985), Dane Ripper (1997), Private Steer (2003) and La Montagna (2006), so Ortensia isn’t necessarily hampered by history. However, she’s a whole lot better over drier surfaces so if she wins, she will be a superstar. She did get through the slow to win the G2 QTC Cup last Saturday over last year’s Stradbroke victor Mr. Baritone. However, she’ll have to overcome the 16 post position in the field of twenty starters.

Last year’s Stradbroke winner Mr. Baritone was beaten by Ortensia last Saturday, and hasn’t run particularly well this campaign—I’ll stand against him for the win, even with Glen Boss up. Black Piranha comes in off a narrow loss to Apache Cat in the G1 Doomben 10,000 on the heavy track—and even gets 7 lbs off! He will be very difficult to beat. Usually I’m a huge Gai Waterhouse fan, but her stable’s in a funk, and Royal Discretion and Bank Robber get no favors by having to start from posts 17 and 18 respectively. Still, I think Bank Robber will be among the top three finishers. For a longshot flyer, how about Something Anything, with Jim Cassidy up for Gary Portelli? He drops 12 lbs from his recent start, and has shown affinity for wet tracks.

20. Ortensia 5. Black Piranha 6. Bank Robber

G1 Queensland Derby (Race 6)

Held since 1868 and over a distance of 2400 meters (12 furlongs, or 1-1/2 miles), the A$500,000 Queensland Derby is for three-year-olds, and since 1973 alone has been won by eight fillies, including last year’s winner Riva San. The Derby winner most American racing fans may be aware of is Strawberry Road (1983) who, as a four-year-old, ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and later sired BC winners Fraise, Escena and Ajina, as well as was the damsire of champion Vindication.

This year there are four fillies in the filed of 19, and the best of them is G1 Queensland Oaks runner-up Nothin’ Leica Cat, with Corey Brown up for Anthony Cummings. She has two second-place finishes on slow tracks, and draw well out mid-field. Best among the wet trackers is Rockdale who has two wins and a placing in three tries over the heavy, but...can he get 12 furlongs? I’m more impressed by Bid Spotter who not only won on heavy last out, but set a new track race doing so. Sure, it was against lesser quality, but he could make a big step up here. While he has no slow or heavy track experience, for the win I like nicely-rested Berlioz who has yet to finish out-of-the-money in seven starts, and has already won at more than 12 furlongs.

3. Berlioz 18. Nothin’ Leica Cat 6. Bid Spotter

G2 Brisbane Cup (Race 7)

First run in 1866 over 3600 meters (18 furlongs, or nearly 2-1/4 miles), the A$300,000 Brisbane Cup was reduced to 2400 meters (12 furlongs, or 1-1/2 miles) and downgraded from G1 to G2 in 2007. Since 1972, eight fillies and mares have won, but the real angle here is the dominance of Kiwi horses, as 21 horses from New Zealand have won over the past 37 years. This year, Kiwi-bred horses represent 13 of the 19 starters. However, the high weight favorite is recent G1 Doomben Cup winner Scenic Shot who will lug 60 kg (over 132 lbs). He’s won once in three tries over the heavy, but with 132 lbs, from post 18, is asking a lot. The More Than Ready mare Ready to Lift looks impressive, undefeated in three attempts at 12 furlongs, including a victory in the heavy last out—plus she’ll carry only 119 lbs. If anyone beats Scenic Shot, it will be her. Best of the Kiwis: Tinseltown who’s won on heavy and slow, including last out, and longshot flyer Hume who gets Craig Newitt riding for the first time.

1. Scenic Shot 6. Ready to Lift 11. Tinseltown

G2 Queensland Guineas (Race 8)

Also for three-year-olds, but held over a shorter 1600 meters (8 furlongs, or one mile) distance, the A$250,000 Guineas highlights middle runners who can’t handle the staying route of the Derby. Again, this is a race in which fillies fare well against their male counterparts; since 1987, six fillies have won, including Sequential Charm in 2007. One of the favorites this year looks to be Robert Smerdon-trained Marveen who was sold at the Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale on Thursday for A$450,000. Her new owner is Sean Buckley who also campaigned the great sprinting mare Miss Andretti. The only query for Marveen is the wet going—the worst she’s ever run on was yielding. The other filly of interest is La Etoile who led, but ultimately finished fourth behind Daffodil and Juice in last November’s G1 New Zealand 1,000 Guineas—good form line, but again the heavy condition is big question.

Youthful Jack will be likely favorite, and rightly so with four wins in four tries on slow tracks, and has won all four of his races here at Eagle Farm. The only niggling issue: he’s never won at 8 furlongs. I Robot has been running in New Zealand against better, and Leapfrog beat Youthful Jack in the G3 BTC Classic two back. For a longshot flyer special: Rollins, whose last two races have been on the heavy (conditioning), finishing third (2 lengths back) and then second most recently, when a new track record was set. Should be fitter than fit!

8. Rollins 18. La Etoile 15. Marveen