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If you think about it, we'll have the perfect storm in Chicago dirt racing Saturday with the 75th running of the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap (Grade II, 1-1/4 miles main track) at beautiful Hawthorne Race Course.
Not a blow-you-to-Oz kind of cyclone, mind you, but a nifty little race that's quite well entered for 2011. Add predicted great weather, a nice crowd and wagering possibilities, and it's a can't miss.
Most people think Arlington when they think Chicago racing, but since AP has put so much emphasis into the Arlington Million and other high-level turf races, "dirt" racing there has gotten short shrift. There's been no shrift since they installed the artificial surface in 2007, and there are no current Grade I races on the main track.
Conversely, Hawthorne runs the Illinois Derby in the spring and this race each autumn. They're the best in Chicago dirt racing each year.
While Arlington unabashedly, thuggishly attempts to wipe out its competition in the near southwest shangri-la known as Stickney, AP's self-proclaimed status as "world-class" has got to suffer some when its Thoroughbreds are running on old tires, wax and cut up telephone wires, among other things. And some horseplayers shun its windows because of it.
Hawthorne Assistant General Manager Jim Miller and Racing Secretary Gary Duch can carve another notch in their saddles with this year's Cup field.
You've got some marquee appeal with Rule, whose name is bigger than his record, and the well-placed Headache. But the one horse who will actually put a few butts in the seats is Giant Oak, Chris Block's pride and joy of Illinois who returns home and attempts to grab the $300,000 winner's share of the half million-dollar purse after a less-than-a-length very tough beat to Redding Colliery in last year's edition.
Oak, slated to start from the 10-hole, is the class of the field, although his singular, hard-closing style is often to his detriment. He finished fifth in the September 3 Woodward at Saratoga in the company of solid Horse of the Year candidate Havre de Grace (I think a better female than Zenyatta, but that's another column) and latest wiseguy Flat Out, winner of last week's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. Havre also won the Beldame last week on the JCGC undercard.
Giant Oak has also faced Rule, Tizway, First Dude, Mission Impazible and Pool Play; he's been running with some of the bigger dogs of 2011.
In this race, Oak is going to have to show some versatility to stay close enough to the lead and then find another gear down the long Hawthorne stretch. He's very consistent, but his last win came in the February 5 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. He's one of those horses who needs a sustained quick pace in front of him to close into. Veteran Jesus Castanon gets the mount, replacing an injured Shaun Bridgmohan.
A 2-1 morning line favorite, his price might be higher thanks to the name recognition of Rule, the 5-2 second choice and third-place finisher in that same Donn.
Rule's claim to fame is . . . dunno. The Todd Pletcher (will we get a Toddster sighting Saturday?) trainee won the $75,000 Birdstone at Saratoga August 4, his first win since the February 2010 Stephen F. Davis at Tampa. But he's a pretty fast horse with 104 and 106 Beyer Speed Figures in his last two, so he's actually well-placed in this race. Corey Lanerie knows Hawthorne well enough, so he won't get discombobulated by the long stretch.
Michael Maker's Headache comes in slightly freshened after a fifth in the tough Whitney Invitational (Giant Oak finished third there) at Saratoga in early August. The five-year-old son of Tapit has done some of his better racing in 2011, including a win over Awesome Gem two back in the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows.
The 94-97-100 Beyers in the last three for Where's Sterling have to jump out at you. Owned by local legend Frank C. Calabrese and trained by Nick Canani, the Northern Afleet colt also gets Chicago fixture ET Baird in the saddle, so you know they have the lay of the land. 'Sterling comes in off a win in the August 20 Philip H. Iselin Breeders' Cup Stakes at Monmouth.
The past performances of Mister Mardi Gras look good, with a 94 Beyer in a win over the respectable Workin' for Hops in the September 3 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. But how do you get over the fact his races have been over turf or artificial surfaces? You look at a March 12 win on an off-the-turf dirt race at Fair Grounds, that's how.
Al Stall's Cease appears to have a chance, until you see that his wins in his two most recent came over the mud. Tommy Skilling says no rain in these parts Saturday, but at 12-1 or better, I'm game.
Worldly, Moe Man, Cherokee Lord, and Maristar round out the field.
On the undercard, there's the $60,000 The Indian Maid for fillies three and up at 1-1/16 miles on the turf. Seniga is the 7-2 morning line favorite.
The Robert F. Carey Memorial also goes 1-1/16 on the turf for males three and up. Tazz is the tepid 7-2 morning line favorite with Princeville Condo right behind at 4-1.
If you've ever wanted to experience racing in an old-school atmosphere, Hawthorne Saturday is it.
In Other Wagering News
It's a bit of a Twilight Zone these Chicago Bears have carved out for themselves, but for the time being, this kid is cruising right along in wagering against them.
Atlanta, facing a Bears team that played its usual sky-high game in the season opener, made the classic mistake of abandoning its identity in the face of adversity. Maybe they can convince the league to form a couple of dome-only divisions.
I figured if they beat New Orleans, they would rightly make me a loser. But they didn't, did they? Taking Green Bay, a team I actually respect, was easy.
Watching Carolina, the Panthers seemed like a team with a lot of pieces that has to learn to eliminate mistakes in order to win. They beat the Bears, but they didn't win the game. If he pays attention to such things, Lovie Smith looked downright sadistic when he let Carolina march down the field for the late touchdown, depriving the many Bears fans who Las Vegas knows bet with their hearts of getting the spread win too. It was a calculated gamble that lucky ducks like Smith get away with. But for a successful onside kick . . .
I was as giddy as Hester and Barber and an impishly happy Urlacher as they strutted out the NFL's de rigeur tomfoolery in taunting fashion to the Panthers. But it was a different giddy. Besides Carolina's having covered the spread, these Bears actually think they're a good team. Even when chartable and specific aspects of their roster and coaching tell us all they certainly are not. That makes it easy for me to see what these Bears really are while I'm contemplating allegiances.
The Bears continuously provide digital video ammunition for other teams to exploit, and exploit they will. So will I, all the way to the bank.
These Bears are arrogant and condescending to all of those outside their little sphere.
As The Great One, Jackie Gleason once said, you'd better be nice to the people you see on the way up, because you're going to see every single one of them on the way down.
Something tells me the Bears will never learn that lesson.
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