Friday, November 24, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Hawthorne Gold Cup (G2)

Return of the Hawthorne Gold Cup

By: Nicolle Neulist, Blinkers-Off

After a one-year hiatus, the Hawthorne Gold Cup returns to the racing calendar this year.  Inaugurated in 1928, it carried a Grade 2 from the introduction of grades through its last running in 2015, with the exception of 1997-2000, when it carried a Grade 3.  It was once again changed to a Grade 3 after the 2015 season ended, so this will be its first running back at that level.

Over the years, its winners' list has been replete with Hall of Fame inductees.  Three-time champion older male Sun Beau won the Hawthorne Gold Cup in all three of his championship seasons: 1929, 1930, and 1931.  Equipoise, once a stakes namesake at Arlington (the Hanshin Cup was previously the Equipoise Mile), won the 1933 running despite being bumped around and carried out by Gallant Sir down the stretch.  The mighty Kelso romped through the mud to win the 1960 edition, and Dr. Fager toyed with a hard-trying Whisper Jet to win the Gold Cup in 1967.

Though the Hawthorne Gold Cup has always been a dirt race, some champions of the turf have won it as well.  Round Table, a Hall of Fame inductee and a three-time Eclipse Champion Grass Horse (1957, 1958, 1959), won the Hawthorne Gold Cup in both 1957 and 1958.  Both years his class carried him to easy open-length victories – and both times, past Arlington stakes namesake Swoon's Son came home second.  Buck's Boy, also most famous for his work on the turf, won the 1997 Hawthorne Gold Cup in wire-to-wire fashion.  It was his first career graded stakes victory.  In his next start he would finish fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) – but the following year, the Illinois-bred gelding would win two Grade 1 races on turf, including the Breeders' Cup, en route to being named the Eclipse Award winner for Champion Grass Horse of 1998.

Race 6: Hawthorne Gold Cup (G3), three-year-olds and up, one and one quarter miles on the dirt, post time 5:30pm CST

The eight-horse field in the Hawthorne Gold Cup abounds with more questions than answers.  The class of the field comes with Scuba and Eagle; on class, both have arguments at least for a defensive use.   

A mile and a quarter may be short for Scuba, and he has been a bit off form this year.  Eagle has been in a bit better form this year, and gets a bit of a class drop – but, on the other hand, he hasn't proven that he can get a mile and a quarter, and he comes in off a sub-par effort at Churchill, a track over which he has run well in the past.  

 Between the two more favored horses, this space likes Scuba just a little better.  Without a lot of speed in the race, Scuba's forward style should pay dividends. Despite the spotty form, it isn't as if Eagle's form is so rock-solid this year as to allay the distance concerns – Scuba seems a bit more likely to get a better pace setup, and to get the distance.

But, on top?  Both are going to be short prices, and neither provide enough confidence to make them attractive at the likely odds.  This looks like the right place to take a bit of a shot with Futile.   

More than anything, it stands out that Futile absolutely loves to win horse races: though the four-year-old son of Broken Vow has only run twelve times, he has won six times.  

Though Scuba likely sets the early pace, Futile should be close behind, and should get first run if Scuba falters.  Though dam Stormy Kiss was a graded stakes-winning sprinter, and Futile himself started as a sprinter, he has shown through the fall that he can be just as effective going two turns.  

 Of course, there are questions with Futile.  He has been strong at a mile and a sixteenth, but now he stretches all the way out to the Classic distance, a new challenge for him.  Furthermore, there's always a question with a horse going first off the claim away from Mike Maker, because that can be playing with fire.  But, new trainer Chris Hartman is good enough first off the claim to allay that fear (22%, with a positive ROI). 

About as many questions hang over Futile's head as over Scuba's or Eagle's – but unlike the others, the price will be right with Futile.

#2 Futile (6/1)
#8 Scuba (9/5)
#5 Eagle (8/5)

Longshot:  The Gold Cup drew a handful of intriguing locals.  There's classy Hay Dakota, with proven stamina but a far better record on turf.  There's lightly-raced Volgograd, by Classic sire Curlin, but with all sprint underneath.  There's Side Pocket, on a tear but getting a class test.  And, there's the horse to whom Side Pocket's regular pilot Santo Sanjur has defected: #7 Empirestrikesagain (15/1).   

Though Empirestrikesagain was a bit flat last out, it was his first race in five and a half months, and he always needs one off the lay.  Expect him to be sharper here.  He has shown some good form over the Hawthorne dirt, and though his dam was star sprinter Summer Mis, his two-turn form has been good enough to suggest that he took a little bit more after sire Empire Maker or even damsire Summer Squall.  Pace is the question, as Empirestrikesagain's late-running style means he hopes the likes of Futile or Van Damme will make Scuba go too fast early.  But, if he gets a bit of pace and the ones with distance questions sputter late, Empirestrikesagain has the dirt form and the late pace to get a piece of the Gold Cup at boxcar odds.

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