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Intriguing Races to Handicap Following Thanksgiving

Dave Litfin handicaps some of the top stakes scheduled Nov. 26 and 27.

Thanksgiving weekend offers up a bountiful portion of stakes action for horseplayers. 

Aqueduct runs seven stakes over  Nov. 26-27, including the Comely (G3) Friday and Long Island (G3T) Saturday—the final graded stakes on turf of 2021 in New York. 

At Churchill Downs, Friday's Clark Stakes Presented By Norton Healthcare (G1) marks the career finale for six-time stakes winner Maxfield , who will try and run down Midnight Bourbon. On Saturday, four stakes for 2-year-olds will be run beneath the Twin Spires, topped by the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and Golden Rod (G2), which respectively each bestow 17 qualifying points (10-4-2-1) to the 2022 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) or Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).

Out at Del Mar, seven stakes are scheduled for the last four days of the meet, with important grass races such as the Hollywood Derby (G1T), Matriarch (G1T) and Hollywood Turf Cup (G2T) on the menu.

FRIDAY

Clark (CD, race 11, 5:56 ET): Midnight Bourbon (1) and Maxfield (8) bookend the field and will obviously attract substantial support. You don't need me to tell you that, do you?

Maxfield is perfect from four starts at Churchill including the Stephen Foster (G2) and Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet (G2) during the first half of the year. He has been pointed to this race since a runner-up finish in the Woodward (G1) as the 9-10 favorite.

Midnight Bourbon has targeted this race ever since getting carried wide by Hot Rod Charlie into the stretch of the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and winding up clearly second best in a grade 1 stakes against other 3-year-olds for the third time in his past four starts. At this stage he has a remarkably similar look to Gun Runner  (also second in the Pennsylvania Derby for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Steve Asmussen), who in 2016 was knocking on the door in big races through most of the season before finally breaking through with a front-running victory from the rail in the Clark.

In his debut against older rivals, Midnight Bourbon obviously shakes out as the controlling inside speed. But Maxfield has overcome outside draws repeatedly and looms a deserving favorite second time in blinkers.

The horse I want to try and link to the favorites is Night Ops (2), who is 15-1 on the morning line and enters off fourth-place finishes in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and Hagyard Fayette (G2). I can give him excuses for both races: The Fayette, run in the slop, was a merry-go-round affair in which the top two finishers coasted along one-two throughout; and the Gold Cup at a mile-and-a-quarter was probably beyond his scope, especially since he was coming off a big-figure placing to the streaking Art Collector just four weeks earlier.

A - 2
B - 1, 8

Hollywood Turf Cup (Dmr, race 7, 6:30 ET): Rockemperor (7) was buried in traffic and never fired in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T), but it's pretty clear he's the one to beat here if he can run back to his victory two back in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1T), which coincided with Chad Brown taking the blinkers off the import from Ireland. That remains Rockemperor's lone triumph from 14 outings in graded stakes, though, and that makes him tough to trust at a short price.

Astronaut (4) also comes off a bad trip in the BC Turf, in which he was shuffled back and eventually had to slam on the brakes on the final turn. Prior to that, he pulled off a 24-1 upset in the Del Mar Handicap (G2T) on this course. That effort seems a bit more representative of what he's capable of at this point, given some better racing luck.

Say the Word (3) was a fast-closing third in this race last year. He has been freshened since a horrible trip behind Astronaut in the Del Mar 'Cap when caught behind horses through the entire stretch before galloping out in front. With a 2-2-1 record from five starts at the distance, notably a win in the 2020 Northern Dancer Presented by Pattison (G1T), he is a true mile and a half horse.

A - 3, 4
B - 7

SATURDAY

Golden Rod (CD, race 10, 5:27 ET): A scan of the eight juvenile fillies entered suggests Famed (1) and Sandstone (4) will take the bulk of the action.

Famed is a half sister to Essential Quality , whom we trust needs no introduction here. The daughter of Uncle Mo  was bet to odds-on for her unveiling at Churchill in late September and was outfinished by another newcomer, Sweet Dani Girl, who was 45-1 that day but came back to prove it wasn't a fluke by winning the $150,000 Myrtlewood Stakes at Keeneland. A day after Sweet Dani Girl won the Myrtlewood, Famed romped over maidens at Keeneland by a widening margin in the slop despite setting a demanding pace.

It looks as though Famed will tussle early with Sandstone, who is one of two entered by Ken McPeek along with the very interesting Hal's Dream (5). After running an even fifth in a 5 1/2-furlong dash back in May, Sandstone was given the summer to mature and returned to win two starts at Churchill in October by the length of the stretch each time, most recently outdueling 3-5 chalk Yuugiri (6) in the Rags To Riches. 

Should a duel soften up the top two, Hal's Dream figures to be rolling late based on her debut win on turf at Saturday's 1 1/16-mile trip. Hal's Dream is by Exaggerator  and out of an Empire Maker mare (Pink Palace), which doesn't exactly conjure up images of a turf specialist. McPeek has been consistently dangerous with turf-to-dirt runners. Of particular note is the fact that Hal's Dream showed coolness under fire first out, lagging far back for six furlongs and then altering course to the rail through the stretch not once, but twice, to prevail in a blanket finish and gallop out well in front. Three of her siblings have won on dirt.

A - 1, 4
B - 5

Kentucky Jockey Club (CD, race 11, 5:56 ET): I'm on Classic Causeway (1) here, plain and simple.

Classic Causeway won his debut at Saratoga Race Course with authority, then broke outward from post 13 in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) and was hard used to clear for the early lead. Under those trying circumstances, he showed good late courage to hang on for a share. This looks like a more favorable dynamic pace flow-wise as he moves to the rail and picks up Joel Rosario.

Underneath we're using Howling Time (5), Tiz the Bomb (6), and Ben Diesel (12).

Howling Time kicked clear nicely to win his first two starts, and the Not This Time colt comes off a five-furlong workout Nov. 20 that is his fastest yet.

Tiz the Bomb won off by better than 14 lengths in an off-the-turf maiden race at Ellis Park second out, and then racked up stakes scores on grass in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile and Castle & Key Bourbon Stakes (G2T), before altering course and finishing strongly between horses to be second behind purse-only runner Modern Games (IRE) in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T). The Hit It a Bomb colt seems to be thriving on regular racing and is another turf-to-dirt contender from McPeek to take seriously.

Ben Diesel drew poorly, but this is a homebred full brother to Will's Secret, who earlier this year won two stakes at Oaklawn Park before finishing third in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) for Willis Horton Racing and Dallas Stewart, whose horses routinely improve as they go along through their formative races.

A - 1
B - 5, 6, 12