Keeler Johnson’s picks and plays of the day for Jan. 22
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