Stakes spot plays for exciting evening at Sam Houston

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

January 24th, 2020

Sunday night is going to be a busy one at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. Half a dozen stakes races are on the agenda, including the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3).

High-class horses and high-profile horsemen will be in action throughout the evening, so let’s add our own rooting interests to the equation with a handful of stakes spot plays on a $75 budget:

Race 6: Stonerside Sprint (4:55 p.m. ET)

Front-running #1 Malpais showed plenty of promise as a 3-year-old last season, winning three sprints (including the Robert Hilton Memorial) before finishing off the board with a tough trip in the May 18 Chick Lang (G3). The son of Hard Spun hasn’t run since, but has been breezing steadily for trainer Joe Sharp, who strikes at a 20% rate with runners returning from layoffs of 90 days or more.

A bullet 5-furlong breeze in :59 4/5 at Fair Grounds suggest Malpais is ready to roll, and he’s eligible to improve in his first start as a 4-year-old. At 5-1 on the morning line, he’s worth a win bet to kick off the stakes action.

  • $10 Win: #1 Malpais

Race 8: Houston Ladies Classic (G3) (6:20 p.m.)

As the only true front-runner in this compact field, #1 Serengeti Empress should prove tough to catch. Winner of the 2019 Kentucky Oaks (G1), Serengeti Empress ran a bang-up race in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), carving out fast fractions over a tiring track before settling for third place. She’s the fastest filly on paper in terms of Brisnet Speed ratings, and the slight cutback in distance to 1 1/16 miles should be to her benefit.

Late-running Cotillion (G1) winner #6 Street Band could find herself at a tactical disadvantage in this paceless race, but she’s been training sharply and can round out the exacta for two-time Houston Ladies Classic-winning trainer Larry Jones. We’ll play the exotics accordingly and use both fillies to kick off a Pick 3.

  • $10 Exacta: 1 with 6
  • $5 Pick 3: 1,6 with 2,12 with 6 ($20)

Race 9: John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3) (7 p.m.)

Trainer Mike Maker has won the last six editions of this 1 1/2-mile turf test and will saddle four horses in search of a seventh straight title. Out of his quartet, my preference is for #2 Cross Border, a stoutly-bred son of English Channel who has improved significantly since stretching out in distance.

Last fall, Cross Border finished fifth in the 1 1/2-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park, beaten just 2 1/2 lengths by Grade 1 winners Arklow, Channel Maker, and Sadler’s Joy. For the John B. Connally, a repeat of this effort should land Cross Border in the Sam Houston winner’s circle, and for good measure, he picks up the services of skilled turf jockey Flavien Prat.

#12 Bemma’s Boy, decisive winner of a 1 1/2-mile allowance race at Keeneland, can give Maker a sweep of the exacta.

  • $15 Win: #2 Cross Border
  • $5 Exacta Box: 2-12 ($10)

Race 10: Jersey Lilly Turf S. (7:35 p.m.)

Looking for a horse with a significant edge in Brisnet Speed ratings? Look no further than #6 Dream Passage. Winner of three straight races for high-percentage trainer Brad Cox, Dream Passage has cracked the 92 Brisnet Speed rating barrier in each of her last three runs. None of her rivals have come close to matching these figures on a consistent basis, making Dream Passage a fair win bet and a logical single to conclude our Pick 3.

  • $10 Win: #6 Dream Passage

Good luck!