The terrific 14-race closing day card at the Hot Springs, Ark., track includes packed fields of 11 to 14 horses entered for each of the day’s races. The Oaklawn Handicap might be the deepest of the bunch with a powerful group of 14 horses assembled, including 2020 Santa Anita Handicap winner Combatant, 2020 Pegasus World Cup Invitational runner-up Mr Freeze, 2018 Preakness Stakes runner-up Bravazo, 2019 Belmont and Travers Stakes runner-up Tacitus, Grade 1 winner Improbable, and multiple graded stakes winner By My Standards.
An important race won by standouts such as Best Pal, Cigar, Medaglia d’Oro, and City of Light in the last 30 years, the Oaklawn Handicap looks like it could be a key race in the older male division this year, especially given the many spring cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race will be broadcast live on “America’s Day at the Races,” airing on FS1, as well as TVG's “Trackside Live” show airing on its home network and also simulcast by NBCSN.
1. Chess Chief (30-1): Enters off third-place finish (disqualified to sixth) in Grade 2 New Orleans Classic won by By My Standards, one of the probable favorites for this race. He’s one of many stalkers who will be vying for a coveted spot just off the pace, but he’s in solid form and has been training well. Chess Chief could spice up the exotics at a big price.
2. Trophy Chaser (12-1): Rides back-to-back wins into this race, most recently taking the Grade 3 Challenger Stakes by a neck at Tampa Bay Downs on March 7. He has shown improvement at age 4 while stretching out in distance and might be overlooked against a strong group here. Worthy of consideration at a big price.
3. Bravazo (30-1): The 2018 Preakness runner-up has lost 14 straight since winning the 2018 Risen Star Stakes, and is unplaced in his last five races. In fairness, Bravazo has faced elite competition with a stretch of 10 consecutive starts in Grade 1 races during the losing skid, but he’s tough to endorse having shown little in three races in 2020.
4. Mr Freeze (6-1): After running second in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup in his 2020 debut, Mr Freeze recorded a career-best 115 Equibase Speed Figure in a three-length runaway win in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile Feb. 29. He’s been freshened since that race and typically performs well when rested. Mr Freeze has finished in the top three in 10 of 11 starts on dirt with five wins and four seconds. A legitimate win candidate.
5. Identifier (20-1): He scored a breakthrough stakes win at 60.50-1 odds in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park March 28 at this distance and is 2-for-2 in 2020. This improving 4-year-old would need to take a significant step forward to compete against a field this deep and talented. Just not sure he’s fast enough.
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6. Warrior's Charge (8-1): Interesting 4-year-old Munnings colt has won four of his last five with the lone blemish a fourth, beaten by 2 ½ lengths, in 2019 Preakness. He’s training well for strong connections and looks like the controlling speed. He’s also getting a few pounds from the top contenders, and there’s a chance he’ll be in front entering the stretch.
7. Combatant (4-1): Needed 24 starts to earn first stakes win, but breakout was timely and lucrative as he pulled a minor upset in Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap March 7 in his second start for trainer John Sadler. Perhaps racing a bit closer to the pace was the key, and Combatant seems to mesh nicely with jockey Joel Rosario. Bullet workout on April 26 a positive indicator.
8. Sky Promise (20-1): He won the Temperence Hill Stakes on this main track March 13, but that was at 1 ½ miles on a sloppy track. A nice 5-year-old whose two graded stakes wins came at Hastings and Northlands Park, but I think this level of competition might be a bit beyond Sky Promise’s capabilities. Filling out the trifecta or superfecta might be the ceiling for this deep closer.
9. Tacitus (9-2): Enters off disappointing fifth in $20 million Saudi Cup, but this one has been racing against the best of the best since winning the Wood Memorial Stakes last spring. Since then he’s run third in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Preakness and Travers Stakes, and third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He’s on a six-race winless stretch, but Tactus is almost always right there in the stretch. Probably a better bet to fill out exacta/trifecta than to win.
10. Captivating Moon (20-1): He’s performed well since making the switch back from turf to dirt and enters off a second to By My Standards in the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic on March 21. Another who would need to show significant improvement to be a serious win threat, but Captivating Moon is a closer who could pass some tiring horses late.
11. Tax (15-1): He’s a hit-or-miss type capable of a big performance at this level at his best or throwing a clunker and finishing up the track. The trip seems to be the key for him. If he can settle into a comfortable spot just behind the pace, Tax figures to be dangerous late in the Oaklawn Handicap. Of course, about half the field will be vying for the same real estate, including several in better form and more consistent.
12. By My Standards (9-2): Last year’s Louisiana Derby winner has been electric in two starts in 2020 since returning from a nine-month layoff after an unplaced finish in the 2020 Kentucky Derby. Looked like a budding star in three-length victory in March 21 New Orleans Classic Stakes and has been working extremely well in preparation for this.
13. Night Ops (15-1): Touting three wins and never finishing out of the top three in five starts at Oaklawn, Night Ops enters off back-to-back victories. Interesting to see Joe Talamo, who was aboard for Night Ops’ last two wins, jumps off to take the mount on Mr Freeze, but four-time Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano is a heckuva replacement. Post position isn’t great, but I think this one could be dangerous as a price.
14. Improbable (8-1): Equibase Speed Figures indicate he’s as fast as any in the field but his last graded stakes win came all the way back in December 2018 as a 2-year-old. Looked like a winner in the Oaklawn Mile Stakes April 11 in season debut when surging clear in the stretch but gave way late to Tom’s d’Etat. Outside post and fact that he doesn’t seem to love to win have me looking elsewhere for top spot, but Improbable is a very talented racehorse quite capable of competing at this level.
THE PICK: By My Standards
LIVE LONGSHOT: Night Ops