by Scott Shapiro

The second week of the Los Alamitos winter meeting is headlined by the $180,000 Winter Challenge.

The race written for local hero and 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome drew a field of 10 and is the 9TH and final race on this Saturday’s card in Cypress, California.

The full field assembled by the Los Alamitos racing office is impressive given the presence of the star son of Lucky Pulpit and the relatively light purse, but the likelihood of #10 California Chrome being defeated this weekend is quite minimal.  Only a gate mishap or an extremely troubled voyage should keep Chrome from finishing off 2016 with a win in what is likely the penultimate start to his storybook career.

#4 Point Piper is the 6-1 second choice on odds maker Russell Hudak’s morning line. The son of Giant’s Causeway has only hit the wire first once in nine starts in 2016, but has performed consistently well against graded stakes company on the dirt throughout the year unlike the majority of the field.

Point Piper’s best performance was this summer in the Longacres Mile (G3) at Emerald Downs when he stormed by a solid field at 5-1. The fact that he has not raced over the unique configuration at Los Alamitos concerns me a bit, but it is hard to imagine him not finishing in the top three given his consistency and class.

Unlike Point Piper, #1 Howdy has raced at Los Alamitos numerous times and has shown an affinity for the racetrack. The Sundarban colt has one win and two runner-up efforts in four starts over the surface and has hit the board in two of his three efforts at the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance. If he can run back to either of his two 2016 starts at Los Alamitos he could provide a bit of value underneath in the exotics in a race where that could be extremely hard to find.

Another entrant in the Winter Challenge that could outrun his odds is #3 Presidentsky. This California-bred has hit the board in 11 of his 21 career starts, including a one-for-one record at the distance. The five-year-old son of Vronsky was well meant last time in a claimer over the lawn at Del Mar, but was too far off a moderate early pace. I expect jockey Brayan Pena to have this 50-1 “bomb” more prominently placed on Saturday. Perhaps he can hang around for a minor share at a big price.

#7 Avanti Bello is the 10-1 third choice on the morning line and will be a popular horse to use in the back end of the exotics based on four straight in the money finishes against solid competition on the circuit. Most recently he wore down a field of optional claimers at Santa Anita Park. He certainly fits with this bunch outside of California Chrome, but his 0-for-four record at Los Alamitos is concerning.

#9 Papacoolpapacool will take his share of support at the windows paired in exotics with California Chrome for trainer Phil D’Amato. The four-year-old son of Temple City showed some promise as a three-year-old capturing three straight going two turns on the lawn, but has failed to finish first or second in six starts in 2016 and performed poorly in his only lifetime start over the main track. This barn has cooled off of late and is 0-for-four thus far at this abbreviated meeting. I will play against him in this spot.

#6 Lucky J Lane appeared to be a shadow of his old self throughout much of 2015, but has performed well since moving to the main track in September. His lone effort over this surface and distance on September 25 resulted in a narrow win against lesser. I think he is worth including.

#5 Ain’t Misbehavin is a California-bred that appears overmatched in this spot, but if the race melts down he could pass several of his rivals in the lane under veteran jockey Kent Desormeaux.

#2 Wrightwood and #8 Unusual Meeting appear badly overmatched.

Wagering Strategy:

Wagering in this race through the win pool is not something I recommend. Chrome is almost certain to go off as the 1-9 favorite making him impossible to endorse, but playing against him on top is likely equal to lighting money on fire. I will choose neither of those options and instead recommend attacking the race through the trifecta and superfecta pools.

My ability to cash in the Winter Challenge will hinge upon California Chrome hitting the wire first and getting one of my price options Howdy, Presidentsky or Lucky J Lane into the number.

With the unlikelihood of a big payout I will refrain from spreading deep and instead try to hit the top three or four on a somewhat limited budget.

Here is how I will wager on the Winter Challenge:

$4 Trifecta Wheel 10 with 4 with 1+3+6 = $12
$4 Trifecta Wheel 10 with 1+3+6 with 4 = $12
$2 Trifecta Key 10 with 1+3+4+6 = $24
$1 Superfecta Wheel 10 with 4 with 1+3+6 with 1+3+5+6+7 = $12
$1 Superfecta Wheel 10 with 1+3+6 with 4 with 1+3+5+6+7 = $12
$1 Superfecta Key 10 with 1+3+4+6 = $24

Total Budget: $96

Good luck at the windows!