In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Johnson shares promising horses from his handicapping watch list, reviewing runners who have recently caught his eye and previewing horses scheduled to run back in the near future.
New to the Watch List
In the summer of 2020, Shirl’s Speight looked like a star in the making, delivering a spectacular debut victory over the Woodbine turf course before easily winning the Marine (G3) on Tapeta. Shirl’s Speight subsequently lost four straight starts, but the son of Speightstown appears to have gotten back on track at Tampa Bay Downs this winter.
After winning a 1 1/16-mile grass allowance on Jan. 15, Shirl’s Speight delivered an impressive victory in the Tampa Bay (G3) over the same course and distance. After settling about five lengths off steady fractions of 23.41, 47.95 and 1:11.91 seconds, Shirl’s Speight unleashed a terrific burst of acceleration, dashing the final 5/16 of a mile in about 28.5 seconds to beat reigning Tampa Bay winner Get Smokin by 1 1/2 lengths.
Shirl’s Speight stopped the timer in a quick 1:41.20 seconds and appears poised to finally deliver on the potential he displayed in 2020.
Recent Watch List winners
Is Adare Manor a star in the making? She certainly looked like one when cruising to a sensational victory in the Las Virgenes (G3) racing one mile at Santa Anita.
With John Velazquez in the saddle for trainer Bob Baffert, Adare Manor broke cleanly and tracked fractions of 22.72 and 46.66 seconds before taking command with authority. Widening her advantage under a hand ride around the far turn and down the homestretch, Adare Manor eventually crossed the wire clear by 13 lengths in 1:37.11 seconds. If she maintains (or improves) her current level of form, Adare Manor figures to win a Grade 1 before the year is over.
Left no doubt about his superiority in the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct. Racing over a slow and tiring muddy track, Early Voting opened up a clear lead through fractions of 23.57, 48.04 and 1:14.29 seconds, then kept going down the homestretch to score by 4 1/2 lengths.
Early Voting stopped the clock for 1 1/8 miles in 1:55.90 seconds. It’s a slow time, true, but the conditions of the track were a major contributing factor. The good news is, Early Voting is 2-for-2 and bred to improve with maturity, so it’s possible we haven’t seen close to his best yet.
Hot Rod Charlie
Talk about a perfect prep for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup: Hot Rod Charlie was as sharp as could be in the 1,900-meter Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) on Friday at Meydan Racecourse. Making his first start in Dubai, the tough-as-nails 4-year-old vied for the early lead before kicking away down the homestretch to power clear and win by 5 1/4 lengths, stopping the clock in a respectable 1:57.41 seconds.
The way Hot Rod Charlie trounced a quality field bodes well for his chances in the Dubai World Cup next month, where he’ll rank among the key American contenders.
Bob Baffert trainee kicked off his sophomore season with a stunning performance in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita, leading all the way under John Velazquez to trounce his pursuers by 15 lengths.
From start to finish, Messier ran strongly. After setting solid splits of 23.24, 46.94 and 1:11.32 seconds, Messier finished strongly under a hand ride, running the fourth quarter-mile in 25.00 seconds and the final sixteenth in 6.57 seconds to complete the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:42.89 seconds. The sky might be the limit for this stoutly bred son of Empire Maker, who has the pedigree to improve with maturity.
Speedy sprinter brought his record over the Gulfstream Park Tapeta track to 2-for-2 with a pacesetting allowance optional claiming win on Sunday afternoon.
Dashing to the front as usual, Sayyaaf outsprinted his fellow pace players to lead by at least one length during the first two calls. He extended his advantage to three lengths passing the eighths pole before digging down deep to hold off the stretch-running Bagboss by three-quarters of a length, completing the five-furlong sprint in 57.68 seconds. Could a return to stakes company be in his future?
Brought his record to 2-for-2 with an allowance optional claiming win on Saturday at Santa Anita, though he needed a little help from the stewards. Always prominent while racing outside, Shaaz advanced to challenge at the top of the stretch, but didn’t get the clearest run as pacesetting Disco Ball drifted out down the lane. Shaaz crossed the wire second by three-quarters of a length, but was promoted to victory via the disqualification of Disco Ball.
It wasn’t the most impressive way to win, but the final time of 1:23.78 seconds for seven furlongs was respectable, as was the fact Shaaz chased hot early fractions of 22.07 and 44.80 seconds while racing wide. Keep in mind, Shaaz is bred to run long, so sprinting might not be his true strong suit.
Worth another try
The Remsen (G2) winner kicked off his season in the Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream, where he overcame a slow start to rally belatedly and finish third. He was no match for runaway winner White Abarrio, but Mo Donegal was beaten only a head for second place and should benefit from getting a run under his belt.
Got outsprinted early in the Forward Gal (G3) dashing seven furlongs at Gulfstream, but unleashed a sustained rally from off the pace to finish second. She was beaten only one length while pulling 6 1/4 lengths clear of the rest, so this was an encouraging graded stakes debut that Radio Days can build on in the future.
Tiz the Bomb
Failed to fire in the Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream, racing off the pace throughout while settling for seventh place by 20 1/4 lengths. But Tiz the Bomb was switching from turf to dirt and probably wasn’t cranked for a peak effort in his first run of the season, so we’ll give him a chance to bounce back next time.
Off the Watch List
• Get Smokin
• Happy Medium
• Soft Power
Here is my complete, updated list of Horses to Watch.