Characteristic of racing in January, the country is on the light side for graded stakes this weekend. Santa Anita will run the Grade 2 Palos Verdes as the 7th race of a 9-race card, Aqueduct has the G3 Toboggan Handicap, and Fair Grounds is host to the G3 Lecomte, G3 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap, as well as the ungraded $100,000 Silverbulletday.
Smiling Tiger should be heavily favored against the six others expected to start in the six-furlong Palos Verdes (named after the rounded peninsula that extends gracefully into the Pacific Ocean). The 4-year-old Jeff Bonde trainee has hit the board in his five previous races, all Grade 1s, winning the Bing Crosby and Ancient Title over synthetic surfaces. In his last out on opening day here, he was in an exciting stretch duel with Twirling Candy where the two pushed each other to a record-breaking performance of 1:19.70 over seven furlongs, with Twirling Candy prevailing by a nose. His competition includes recent optional claimer winners Captain Cherokee and Hunch, and Ventana, last year's G2 Potrero Grande winner, returning from an eight-month layoff.
The top three finishers in the Dec. 18 Gravesend return in the Toboggan, run at the same six-furlong distance. Calibrachoa (a $40,000 claim two races back!) and Driven by Success, both owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, finished 1-2 in the Gravesend. Driven by Success was cross-entered on Friday's Aqueduct card which has been cancelled for weather-related reasons, so those two may face each other again. The third-place finisher from the Gravesend, Endless Circle, is trained by the red-hot Rudy Rodriguez, who also has Temecula Creek entered here. Temecula Creek comes in with back-to-back wins under his belt, the most recent being Dec. 7's Valley Forge in Philadelphia.
A field of nine will be put to the test in the Col. Bradley, an 8 ½-furlong turf race for older horses. Highweight of 121 lbs. is Strike Again, winner of the Diliberto Memorial, run at the Fair Grounds in early December. Runner-up in that contest was Gran Estreno, the 5-2 morning line favorite here. Gran Estreno returned on Dec. 22 to win an optional claimer, defeating Southern Anthem, also in the entries. Another possibility here is Midnight Mischief, most recently unplaced in the G3 Tropical Turf Handicap, and previous to that, second to Battle of Hastings in the G3 River City Handicap.
The five newly-turned 3-year-olds all make their graded stakes debuts in the Lecomte, a 1 mile and 70 yard affair on the main track. Justin Phillip and Action Ready are both coming off wire-to-wire wins in optional claimers, while Mobeetie exits his maiden victory. Pants On Fire should also show speed, which might set up for Wilkinson to win from off what should be a speedy pace.
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