Handicapper J. Keeler Johnson shares his weekday picks and plays for Friday, Jan. 22 at Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, and Turfway Park, including a promising first-time starter.
Gulfstream Park: Race 6: $50,000 Maiden Claiming (6 furlongs, 3:09 p.m. ET)
#3 R King Kong (7-2) looks live on debut for high-percentage trainer Georgina Baxter. Not only does Baxter strike at a 27% rate with first-time starters, she wins at an even loftier 33% rate when debuting horses in maiden claiming races.
A half-brother to the stakes-winning sprinter Seismic Jolt, R King Kong is a son of King’s Bishop (G1) winner The Big Beast, a high-class sprinter who sires 30% winners from first-time starters. R King Kong’s work tab looks solid, so taking all of these metrics together, he appears poised for a big effort in his first start.
We’ll bet R King Kong to win and play him over #1 No Commission (5-2) in a straight exacta.
$20 to win on #3 R King Kong
$10 exacta: 3 with 1
Santa Anita: Race 1: $40,000 Claiming (6 furlongs on turf, 3:30 p.m. ET)
A multiple stakes winner in his youth, #3 Kitten’s Cat (5-2) has been competing admirably on the New York and Kentucky circuits in recent years, though he’s gradually dropped down the class ladder and was claimed when finishing second for a $25,000 tag at Belmont Park in September.
Although Kitten’s Cat is ascending to the $40,000 level for his return to action, there are plenty of reasons to believe he’ll produce a winning effort. For one, trainer Robert Falcone strikes at a 27% rate with new claiming acquisitions. For another, East Coast shippers tend to perform well in West Coast turf races—earlier this month, former claimer Hembree upset Santa Anita’s 6 1/2-furlong Joe Hernandez (G2) in his first start for new connections.
Lastly, Kitten’s Cat has already displayed an affinity for Santa Anita, winning the 2016 Juvenile Turf Sprint S. with a sharp rally from mid-pack. With hot jockey Juan Hernandez slated to ride, Kitten’s Cat is worth betting to win and playing on top of #2 Appreciated (5-1) and #4 Via Egnatia (3-1) in the exacta.
$20 to win on #3 Kitten’s Cat
$5 exacta: 3 with 2,4 ($10)
Turfway Park: Race 5: Maiden Special Weight (6 1/2 furlongs on Tapeta, 8:16 p.m. ET)
Since 2016, trainer Wesley Ward has gone 7-for-16 (44%) debuting 3-year-old colts and geldings at Turfway Park, a powerful stat suggesting Ward’s unraced #8 Turfy (7-2) will be dangerous in his first run under colors. But I’m actually more intrigued by Turfy’s experienced stablemate #7 Breakthrough (8-1), who has Ward’s go-to Turfway jockey Gerardo Corrales (a 27% winner over this course) named to ride.
A son of champion juvenile and Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist, Breakthrough showed promise in his first two starts last spring, cracking the trifecta in a pair of maiden sprints on dirt and turf. But after weakening badly in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race during the summer at Saratoga, Breakthrough went to the sidelines and didn’t return to serious training until November.
Friday’s race will mark Breakthrough’s first start as a gelding, setting the stage for an improved performance. I’m optimistic the $330,000 yearling will enjoy the switch to Tapeta, so let’s bet Breakthrough to win and play him in the exacta with Turfy.
$12 to win on #7 Breakthrough
$8 exacta: 7 with 8