Generally speaking, handicapping horse races is about identifying the best horse, because more often than not, the best horse is going to win.
Of course, where you’re comparing champions and top-class Grade 1 winners, identifying the “best horse” can be akin to splitting hairs. Such is the case in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita Park, in which the champion #5 West Coast will square off against the three-time Grade 1 winner #6 Accelerate in a 1 1/8-mile event that resembles a match race on paper.
If asked to split hairs and determine the “best horse,” I’d be tempted to side with West Coast. After all, he was the champion 3-year-old male of 2017 after winning the Grade 1 Travers Stakes and Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, and he wasn’t badly beaten at all when coming home third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic against a terrific field. Furthermore, in terms of Beyer and BRIS speed figures, West Coast’s career-best race (a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup in January) makes him slightly faster than Accelerate.
But here’s the thing—there’s no guarantee at all that West Coast will be at his peak in the Awesome Again. Last year, the son of Flatter seemed to thrive on his busy racing schedule, which is understandable since he’s never been considered a very good work horse in the mornings. So the fact that the Awesome Again will mark West Coast’s first start in six months is a bit concerning, especially since he’s only posted six workouts in preparation for his return. Trainer Bob Baffert actually told Santa Anita publicity that West Coast is only “about 80 percent” ready for the Awesome Again, but he’s entering the colt because West Coast needs to get a prep race under his belt before the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
West Coast at 80 percent could probably still beat the majority of stakes horses across the country, but in Accelerate, he’s facing a rival with serious championship credentials of his own. Trained by John Sadler, Accelerate has long been a capable graded stakes competitor in California, but he’s risen to an entirely different level this season, scoring easy Grade 1 wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup at Santa Anita, and the Pacific Classic, dominating the latter race by 12 ½ lengths. Accelerate loves Santa Anita, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be ready to roll on Saturday. His advantage in fitness alone could be enough to secure him the victory over West Coast.
With this in mind, I’ll make Accelerate my top choice in the Awesome Again Stakes, playing him in a large exacta over West Coast. I’ll also play a smaller, saver exacta using #3 Prime Attraction and #4 The Lieutenant for second place, just in case West Coast is even rustier than we expect off the layoff and struggles to finish in the top two:
$15 exacta: 6 with 5 ($15)
$5 exacta: 6 with 3,4 ($10)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!