Archive for June 2014

California Wine Country Recap

June 20, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time in California’s wine country in the month of July in the past few years. Over time, I’ve visited in the fall months of September, October and November as well, but before my most recent trip, I had never visited in the spring. During my five day tasting tour of Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Forestville and Anderson Valley, I experienced unseasonably warm weather in mid-May. With temperatures in the 90s, it felt very similar to my recent July trips, if not hotter than some, but there was something different- a strong, undeniable floral aroma that carried through the breeze.

After enduring a severe winter drought that dried up reservoirs across the region, such hot weather so early in the growing season could pose challenges, but vinters in the area showed no signs of panic. Some early spring rains came just before budbreak, staving off potentially catastrophic irrigation dilemmas, and while 95 degrees in the valley in the middle of May is unseasonably warm and there are recent rumors of the onset of veraison even before the summer equinox, there’s still a lot of weather ahead.

Tasting through more of the elegant 2009 vintage, the dramatically acclaimed 2010 vintage, and the cool, more difficult 2011 vintage, one theme stood out for me on this trip. It became apparent that the string of good vintages that the region had enjoyed spanning 2004-2010 benefited those who sought to capitalize on the land itself. While far from ideal, the challenging 2011 vintage really proves to separate the true winemakers from those that are merely wealthy winery owners, as the best among the crafters made fantastic, nuanced, character-driven wines in 2011. While it is a year where buyers should choose carefully, it is also a year that could prove to be a great separator between vinters.

Over five days of constant wine tasting, which I determined once and for all, is pretty much my limit, I tried roughly 125 wines and visited over 20 different wineries. While I won’t dedicate this recap to covering them all, I wanted to focus on each region I visited, and upon the winery that I felt stood out above the rest for each unique appellation, both in terms of wine quality and visitor experience.

Day One- FORESTVILLE

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When it comes to pure dedication and focus, the folks in the tasting facility here would have you believe that there are few in California, if not the world, on the level of Paul Hobbs in terms of winemaking. This lovely tasting takes place seated on comfortable couches in a group setting and overlooks the vineyards, while the highly wine-educated staff take you through a tasting of five wines for $45, while also giving you some historical background on Paul Hobbs’ journey through his love of wine, his meticulous nature, and his rise to superstardom in winemaking.

Hobbs specializes in a variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and grows them all over the map, with vineyards here at the winery site in the Western Sonoma town of Sebastopol (above) as well as outsourced grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and highly sought after single vineyards in Napa such as To Kalon and Stagecoach. Hobbs is an example of a winemaker who was able to make lemonade out of lemons in 2011, as richness shows all the way through the Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011 (91 Points), which bursts with vibrant fruit and toffee notes, to the deep, almost brooding Cabernet Sauvingnon Napa Valley (92 Points).  Even the Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (91 Points) balances the rugged vintage characteristics with dark wild berry notes behind its earthy mushroom and tobacco notes.

We took the latter wine into the barrel room (below) to take a look at what the future holds. It was most re-assuring the taste one of his famous single vineyard wines after returning to the tasting couch, the Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane 2010 (93 Points). As mentioned above, the greatest winemakers can turn a difficult vintage into something truly special and character driven, but if this is the case, imagine what they do in ideal vintages? This wine, with its super-extracted black currant fruit that combines with cocoa over a silky texture, is evidence of this.

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Day Two- ANDERSON VALLEY

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GOLDENEYE: While traveling through the wineries of the Anderson Valley, which for the most part cover the towns of Navarro and Philo, it made me long for the days of a decade ago in the now comparatively pretentious Napa Valley, the days where my notepad alone was enough to have a tasting fee waived. While I am more than happy to pay for any wine that I taste, it was refreshing to visit an area that pours its wine to sell it, and to spread its own good name above all else.

I visited four wineries on my trip through this somewhat isolated and heavily pine-tree laden region, and none of them charged me a fee. This is Pinot Noir country, and there was no question that I would be planning my day around Goldeneye Winery, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the friendly, personalized service I received here, with a lovely fountain and vineyard backdrop to complement. My host Doug greeted me and was as congenial a man as you’ll meet, which seems par for the course in this neck of the woods. I received a flight of five Pinots here (below), including three single vineyards, and was offered all of the re-tastes that I wanted. The Gowan Creek Vineyard 2010 (94 Points) earned the highest rating of all the Pinots I tried this trip, mostly on the strength of its weightless, integrated texture that combines with juicy fruit and earthy spice. The Confluence Vineyard 2010 (92 Points) and The Narrows Vineyard 2010 (91 Points) demonstrated contrasting, well-executed styles, with the former showing more juicy fruit notes and the latter more herbacious, piney and earth driven. The Gowan Creek seemed to be a beautiful combination of both styles.

So as I sat and sipped and scribbled notes, Doug would come to check on me and engage me in enjoyable conversation. All the while the fountain splashed, the sun beat down on the vines and the grapes began to ripen. I could have stayed here forever and will certainly visit again.

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Day Three- DRY CREEK VALLEY

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SBRAGIA: I’ve driven many wine roads in California in my day, from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, all the way up to Calistoga, Sonoma, Forestville and Mendocino, and everything in between. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as stunning, lush and concentrated as the Dry Creek Valley Road just north of Healdsburg (above). It has become a mandatory stop on every tasting trip even if only for the drive alone, which incidentally is best done after the lunch hour as the sun beats down and reflects upon the sea of green vines. At the very end of this road, I almost always find myself at Sbragia, with the anticipation of the lovely drive back south always to look forward to after my tasting.

Ed Sbragia was winemaker at Beringer for years, and that establishment needs no introduction, being only one of two wineries in Napa to have ever won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year award twice, and the only one to earn that honor with two different varietals (Caymus is the other, both with Cabernet). Sbragia excels with everything that he does, but really brings a special touch to his Chardonnay. He is certainly not one to be shy of the oak, and prefers wines of a rich, creamy style, but finds remarkable balance and does not sacrifice the fruit. The Gamble Ranch Chardonnay 2009 (94 Points) is perhaps the finest American Chardonnay I have ever tasted, with Burgundian aromas that offer earthy petrol and mineral nuances, with a rich, oily, stone fruit-driven texture that is almost like a Sauternes. I tasted this alongside three other Chardonnays in an impressively orchestrated vertical tasting (below).

This brings me to my two keys for getting the most out of your tasting experiences in California wine country. First and foremost, email ahead of time and express your interest in visiting the winery, even at a facility like Sbragia that allows walk-ins and where you don’t need reservations. By specifying your interest in particular wines, the staff will realize that you are truly interested and will be willing to offer selections accordingly in many cases. Secondly, if an outdoor seated tasting is available, take advantage of it. I’ve grown incredibly weary of bellying up to tasting bars when the beauty of the vineyards is right outside to be enjoyed. Sbragia in particular offers one of the very best outdoor enviroments in the whole area, and since its laid back tasting room offers wines by the glass or by the bottle, this is a great stop to relax with a group even if you aren’t in the mood for a serious tasting flight. Not surprisingly, I was in the mood to taste quite a few, and my wonderful host Matt had pre-arranged an outdoor seating for me, with a lineup of four Chardonnays (below) and three Cabernets that I had requested ahead of time. It was an incredible experience. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

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Day Four- NAPA VALLEY (Silverado Trail)

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SHAFER: Shafer’s Relentless is an expressive, perennially powerful Syrah-based blend and was one of the first bottles that resulted in my full blown affliction with the wine bug. I’ve tasted every vintage since 2004, visited the winery for the first time in 2009, and I was ecstatic when the 2008 bottling was awarded the coveted Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award, albeit with mixed feelings. I was so very happy for a wine that had earned such cult status in my individual tasting regimen to receive such a high accolade, but at the same time lamented what the results of such widespread recognition would have upon my own selfish considerations, namely, availability and price. Indeed, the Relentless bottling is much more difficult to locate than it once was, and the price has risen slightly. After a five year hiatus, it was time for another visit to the winery (above).

Doug Shafer, President of the winery (below), wrote the fascinating book “A Vineyard In Napa” in 2010, which describes all of the risks, trials and tribulations that the family dealt with when they moved here on a whim from Chicago in the early 70s. Little did they know way back then, nor did they know that just after the book was published, that the Relentless would receive such an honor. Shafter takes its tasting experience very seriously and reservations are very difficult to come by inside of a month ahead of time, and having planned this trip somewhat quickly, I really had to scramble for one of the last available spots. The informative seated tasting offers a wide open view of the surrounding vineyard accompanied by five large pours of current release wine for a prepaid $55 fee, but to me, although pricey, this is still one of the very best experiences in the area. The highlight of the show is always the Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select, and the 2009 (95 Points) is no exception, demonstrating depth and elegance beneath its black currant, cocoa, cedar and atypical smoked meat notes. The grapes for this terroir-driven wine are carefully selected from the steep single vineyard located on site, and is a special offering. There aren’t too many tasting rooms in Napa that pour their $250 Reserve Cabernet to the public, and perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shafer’s tasting is that unlike so many wineries in the area, they aren’t afraid to pour you their very best stuff for the price you’re paying. To the contrary, they will pour you the very best of what they have available.

As if any more confirmation of the consistency of the Relentless was necessary at this point, I found the monstrous, masculine 2010 (95 Points) to be on par with the Hillside Select in terms of quality, and at less than a third of the price, it still represents significant value in the area if you can get your hands on it at your local wine store. And if you can’t, it’s comforting to know that you can always head straight to the source, provided you are willing to prioritize this stop first and foremost. You’ll also get to taste the current releases of the One Point Five Cabernet, Merlot and Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, as well as a rare Chocolate Port at the conclusion. Some things in life are worth the splurge, and this remains the case in the Shafer tasting room.

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Day Five- NAPA VALLEY (St. Helena)

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BEHRENS: A drive up Spring Mountain Road is, to me, a mandatory piece of any tasting itinerary while visiting the Napa Valley. There are so many unique producers pouring wines on this winding, moderately treacherous road due west of Highway 29, and they all offer views that are second to none. I’ve made many visits to Pride, I’ve had the pleasure to visit Barbara at Paloma, and have stopped in at Schweiger, Sherwin Family and Charbay. However, until this trip, I’d never made the drive to the very far end of the road, where an air-conditioned trailer (above) and a straight-shooting, wine-loving tasting hostess await, offering exquisite wines and unparalleled views.

Les Behrens doesn’t own any vineyards, but he is a winemaker who executes low-production wines by purchasing grapes with careful precision, and the results are bottles that demonstrate remarkable character, balanced with earth-driven elements over a seamless texture–the most consistently soft, silky and structured tannin composition of any winery I visited on this trip. The Behrens production is wide and varied, but focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The incredibly unique tasting experience takes place in a trailer offering views from the very top of Spring Mountain, covers about eight different wines for a $40 fee (waived with a two bottle purchase), conducted by Robin Cooper, a true wine-lover who has a collection herself of some 6000 bottles. Robin’s passion for the Behrens wine is evident, and I was most impressed by her willingness to discuss her appreciation of many other winemakers in the area. She truly exhudes an attitude of collective success for the whole region, which has become a bit of a rarity in this particular, highly competitive appellation. Behrens sells out of nearly all of their wines, so they have no incentive to badmouth other wineries, but her honest appraisal of the surrounding vinters was certainly a breath of fresh air.

The Behrens wines have so much personality, and this is evident before tasting them even by the way they are bottled. The leathery, earth-driven Sainte Fumee 2011 (93 Points) comes in a stout, port-shaped bottle, and shows off circus-like artwork as so many of these bottles do, while the unique Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving 2011 (95 Points) attempts to suggest an immediate pairing by its name, and appropriately so– that was the best Cabernet I tasted over this entire trip, with its intense earth aromas reminiscent of a Bordeaux that combine with deep, dark fruit notes. Like they say in marketing, half of the battle is getting the customer to see the bottle in the first place, although none of these bottles will make it to your local wine store anyway, so I digress. Still, the entire concept implements a perfect balance between having fun with the wines and simulatenously taking them incredibly seriously, and this balance carries over to the structure of the wines themselves. Best to go to the source.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND BLENDS

Behrens

1) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving Napa Valley 2011, 95 Points, $115-  Bordeaux-like aromas, with iron mineral, leather and cigar box above crushed berry fruit notes. Impossibly polished and seamless, with intense, powdery mocha, layers of blackberry and deep plum above terroir-driven, expressive earth elements of tobacco, fresh leather and road tar. Long finish with refined tannins adding grip. This is all about texture.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $250- Lovely aromas of cassis and minty cedar. Velvety body of blackberry and black cherry show complex notes of wet petrol mineral and smoked meat underneath. Atypical for the varietal, as elements of cedary spice and cocoa creep in and engage the back of the palate. Phenomenal texture, with the slightest hint of dry tannin creeping in late as structured dark fruit and mineral linger for minutes.

3) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Oakville 2010, 94 Points, $80- Big aromas of plummy cassis, chocolate, toast and cedar. A real mouthful, with dark plum, black cherry and blackberry exploding above creamy vanilla, toffee and milk chocolate undertones, with complex hints of sweet tobacco creeping in late. Impeccable texture and balance through the long finish.

4) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Crowley Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $85- Huge, rich crushed blackberry jam aromas with hints of cedar and pine underneath. A juicy, gutsy style, with tons of blackberry fruit that is incredibly lush and layered, with earthy tobacco spice notes that pick up leather in a stunning shift underneath. Utterly packed, with an impeccable texture through the long finish, which shows velvety tannins.

5) Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $110- Rich aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate and cedar. Polished, dark and aggressive body of black licorice, blackberry and mocha bean that show cedary undertones. Dark chocolate creeps in late. A monstrous, masculine wine, still showing huge tannins on the finish, but the texture is silky and the flavors are pure and focused. Needs to soften, but this is packed and powerful.

6) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $48- Rich, perfumed cassis and chocolate aromas. Lush texture of blackberry, black plum and black cherry above hints of chocolate as tobacco and cigar box notes creep in late. The finish is all dark, polished fruit though, as it lingers.

7) Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon Rancho Del Oso Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $75- Piney, wet forest floor aromas. Lush and velvety, with perfumey black currant fruits above subtle chocolate notes, stony minerality and cedary spice that lingers for minutes. Textured and detailed, with silky tannins adding structure.

8) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2011, 93 Points, $135- Aromas of black currant, cigar box and mocha powder. Seamless and dark, with brooding blackberry, black licorice and Godiva dark chocolate notes above mocha powder and undertones of tobacco spice. Silky, refined tannins add depth and structure. Long finish with spicy tobacco and chocolate lingering for minutes. Well done in a tough year.

9) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane Napa Valley 2010, 93 Points, $175- Gorgeous on the nose, with perfumed black currants and subtle cocoa. Seamless, silky body with super-dark and refined blackberry and black cherry that tastes thick but feels light. Super-extracted and dark, with a long, refined finish that goes on and on, gaining traction from its silky tannins. Thick and chewy finish.

10) St. Clement Oroppas Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Marked by its black cherry cola and cedary underbrush aromas. Ultraripe on the palate, with a focused core of juicy crushed blueberry and blackberry cassis notes along with black cherry that are layered impressively above mocha, dark chocolate, cedar and oak notes. This lingers long with some exotic baking spices adding intrigue, a strong effort in a tough vintage. Shows elegance and dimension in its youth.

11) Behrens The Heavyweight Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $75- Rich black cherry, wild raspberry and hints of black olive on the nose. Silky texture unfolds with detailed, balanced red currant fruits, complex undertones of cigar box, leather, sage and herbs, with a faint hint of petrol earth. Distinct and weightless, showing silky tannins and a complex, earth-driven length.

12) St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Paras Vineyard Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $80- Huge nose of cocoa powder, black olive and black currant. Very terroir-driven and earthy, with chocolate and olive elements above dark plum and black licorice running over a smooth, silky texture. Refined, silky tannins add structure through the long finish.

13) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $90- Classic varietal profile, with black olive and cocoa powder above black currants. Dark black fruit flavors of plum and licorice combine over dark chocolate and black olive earth, all over a silky texture. A big, masculine wine, showing depth through the long finish.

14) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap 2011, 92 Points, $100- Big, rich nose of black cherry, coffee and cedar. Silky texture shows dark cherry and blackberry fruit notes, evolving into sweet vanilla and mocha/espresso notes and burnt toast nuances, finishing with a grip and lingering long, showing fresh minty notes. Very well done in a tough vintage.

15) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Toasty graham cracker and cinnamon spice aromas shade blackberry and black cherry. Juicy, complex body of black currants and melted licorice show cool vintage characteristics of wet forest floor and briary spice with undertones of clove and tobacco lingering. Dry tannic grip, and needs to soften, but there’s lots going on here.

 ZINFANDEL

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1) Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County 2011, 92 Points, $38- Toasty on the nose, with dark berry and black cherry fruit aromas. Super-dark and elegant on the palate, with rich chocolate-covered black cherry notes that wrap around spicy pepper and vanilla bean through the long finish. Surprising darkness, as earth and spice elements power down the fruit, somewhat atypical and unique from old vines.

2) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Dina’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Enticing aromas combine dark fruit with exotic spice. Full, supple and spicy body, with intense wild berry, dark raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors above spicy white pepper, herbs and fennel which cleanse the back of the palate. Very layered and detailed through the long, spicy finish.

3) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Fannuchi-Wood Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Massive aromas of raspberry pie, briar and dark red currant. Bursting on the palate with its juicy, concentrated raspberry and boysenberry fruit, shwoing darker notes of blackberry and blueberry that are understated but add a purple element. Smooth finish carries a savory underbrush note and a hint of chalky mineral that gets out of the way quickly as the fruit and briary spice lingers long.

4) Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2012, 91 Points, $24- Lively cherry and rich raspberry pie aromas lead into darker flavors of blackberry and black licorice, with undertones of exotic spice, cracked pepper, briar and vanilla bean. Long and substantial, for fans of the juicy and hot style, but shows a polished texture.

5) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2012, 91 Points, $24- Spiced red plum and cherry aromas show a hint of cinnamon. Juicy, ripe and spicy, with cherry and plum pie flavors understated by white pepper and cinnamon spice. Most impressive for its texture, which is silky and polished without the slightest hint of dryness. A classic spicy old vine fruit bomb, for fans of the style.

6) Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2012, 90 Points, $29- Black cherry and a hint of toasty oak in the nose. Vibrant acidity showcases bright cranapple, raspberry and cherry flavors that gain traction from toasty spice and understated white pepper notes, which linger nicely on the finish with firm tannins. A lovely, blended example of the surrounding single vineyards.

7) Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2012, 90 Points, $30- Juicy aromas of cherry and wild raspberry. Seamless texture with a pure, focused fruit beam of bing cherry, wild berry and blueberry above a strong cracked pepper note through the long finish. Refined tannins add structure.

8) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2011, 90 Points, $38- Aromas of briary dried raspberry and toasty oak. Zesty and balanced with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit, gaining depth from savory herbal underbrush nuances and a toffee note through the finish.

9) Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $39- Briary and peppery on the nose, with dark raspberry, toasty spices and a trace of stone mineral. Cracked black pepper runs through the juicy raspberry and cherry fruit, finishing with crushed rock undertones. Firm tannins add medium grip through the long length, which extends the fruit and spice components.

10) Mauritson Zinfandel Westphall Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $40- Warm, toasty aromas of dark berry and mocha bean. Complex body, with forest floor, savory herbs and mocha spices above dark red currant fruit notes and dill creeping in through the long finish. Plush texture needs time to soften on the back of the palate, as firm tannins dry out the length a bit, but this shows potential and complexity.

CHARDONNAY

Sbragia

1) Sbragia Chardonnay Gamble Ranch Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $40- A Burgundian nose, with stony mineral bracing squeezed lemon notes. Impeccable texture, with a Sauternes-like depth, complete with honey, apricot and peach above hints of petrol and wet stone. Understated oaky spice pulls it all together and adds complexity. A massive, courageous Chardonnay, one of the greatest terroir-driven American Chards I’ve ever tasted.

2) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley 2012, 92 Points, $44- Inviting aromas of pear, guava, melon, green apple and toasty vanilla bean. All in perfect balance with its toasted oak nuances not overpowering expressive tropical fruits, with juicy pineapple, pear suace, honey dew and canteloupe melon. An essay in balance, with toasty spice lingering long with the fruit.

3) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2009, 91 Points, $26- Rich and buttery aromas, full of honey, apricot and stone fruit. Creamy body shows golden delicious apple, peach and dried apricot, with a streak of butterscotch, toffee and beeswax running all the way through. Brown sugar spice lingers with the fruit through the long, soft finish.

4) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2012, 91 Points, $28- Lifted floral citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit on the nose. Seamless and weightless on the palate, with creamy but understated oak influences above effortless lemon custard, tangy grapefruit and a luscious crème brulee aftertaste that lingers long.

5) Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $47- Butterscotch and golden citrus aromas. Vibrant and refreshing on the palate, with golden delicious apple laced with toffee and brown sugar spice. All in finesse, with deft balance between its acidity and oak influences, with neither getting in the way of the fruit. No tartness, as golden citrus and toffee spice lingers through the long finish.

6) Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch Napa Valley Carneros 2012, 91 Points, $50- Meyer lemon and tropical fruit aromas, with very subtle shades of oak. Crisp and clean, with lively green apple, pineapple, and lemon fruit that is juicy and acidic. Maintains balance from its very subtle oak influences underneath, but citrus really shines here through the long, polished finish.

7) Lewis Chardonnay Barcaglia Lane Russian River Valley 2012, 91 Points, $75- Big, butterscotchy oak aromas shade citrus notes of bartlett pear. Lovely, creamy texture, with juicy tropical fruit flavors of peach and canteloupe melon along with the pear up front that shift into a rich, toasty underbelly of toffee and vanilla bean spice. Lingers long with a beeswax nuance and vibrant acidity. Long finish, very layered and balanced.

8) Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2012, 90 Points, $30- Lemon meringue pie aromas show hints of butterscotch and floral nuance. Creamy body of lemon, golden apple and pear citrus, laced nicely with almondy spice. Clean and crisp through the long finish.

9) Laird Chardonnay Red Hen Ranch Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Crisp and clean throughout, with a focused beam of peach, canteloupe and toasted pear. Lingers with spicy but subdued oak notes. Very finessed, showing vibrant acidity and balanced oak undertones. Elegant all the way through, lingering with a floral note.

10) Hartford Court Chardonnay Four Hearts Vineyard 2012, 90 Points, $45- Rich and buttery aromas, with traces of orange blossom and stone citrus. Smooth, creamy body of golden delicious apple and orange peel spice, balanced impressively with vanilla bean and hazelnut spice. Shows juicy acidity balanced by toasty undertones through the long finish.

PINOT NOIR

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1) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley 2010, 94 Points, $80- Fresh forest floor aromas combine with deep plum and black currants. Remarkable texture, with perfumey plum, boysenberry, wild berry fruit that dance on the palate, showing undertones of white chocolate, exotic spices and wet cedar, pine cone and understated tobacco through the long finish. Detailed and engaging, with lovely floral lilac and lavender notes lingering with the fruit and soft, refined tannins pulling it all together.

2) Seghesio Pinot Noir Costeira Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $42- Gamey aromas of smoked meat, with mushroom nuances above red currant fruit notes. Delicate mouthfeel of floral black cherry, strawberry and rose petal above white pepper spice, smoke, tobacco and earthy mushroom through the long finish. Remarkable texture, complexity and elegance.

3) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Confluence Vineyard 2010, 92 Points, $80- Jammy raspberry aromas show hints of earthy mushroom. Weightless on the palate, with lovely floral violet nuances giving way to rich plum, blueberry and raspberry fruit notes that sit above creamy, toasty vanilla bean spice and understated mushroom and tobacco earth. Complex, layered and delicate through the long finish, which lingers with silky tannins holding it all together.

4) Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Svelte and ripe, with complex mushroom and tobacco spice aromas. This starts silky on the palate with earthy mushroom up front, then gains steadily riper berry fruit notes of black cherry and dark, wild raspberry. This is impressive for its evolution and layering in a tough vintage.

5) Goldeneye Pinot Noir The Narrows 2010, 91 Points, $80- Tons of fresh pine cone and herbaciousness on the nose. A distinctly herbal offering, with pine and cedar influences above vivid raspberry and blueberry notes, gaining toffee and charred oak elements over an even texture. Lingers long with toasty herbal spices and a mocha note, showing a hint of off-balance tartness and dry tannins, but impressively structured.

6) FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2012, 90 Points, $40- Big, inviting nose of perfumey red currants backed with toasty oak and herb nuances. Rich plum and red cherry fruit flavors combine on the palate above herbal undertones and burnt toast. Bursting with fruit and savory spice through the long finish.

7) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Aromatic with its dried berry and floral notes, showing a hint of smoke on the nose. Silky and elegant, with raspberry and black cherry fruit notes above subtle sweet tobacco spice underneath. Graceful and polished through the long finish, as dry tannins add grip.

8) Breggo Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Campfire smoke and black cherry aromas. A darker style, with black cherry and licorice fruit above black coffee, smoke and charred oak notes. Lingers with a savory edge, as cedar, sage, cracked pepper and crushed rock elements creep in late. Complex and well-executed in a tough vintage.

9) Hartford Court Pinot Noir Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2010, 90 Points, $70- Elegant nose of rose petal and red currant fruits. Delicate mouthfeel shows deep, expressive red plum, raspberry and boysenberry above complex rose and violet floral nuances that deepen into subtle tobacco spice and chalky mineral that linger with grainy tannins.

10) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Migration Russian River Valley 2012, 89 Points, $35- Elegant on the nose with its lifted, perfumed red currant fruit notes. Juicy wild berry fruit intertwines with white pepper spice, hints of cigar box and wet mineral. Silky texture with refined tannins through the long finish.

SYRAH, PETITE SIRAH AND MERLOT

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1) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010, 95 Points, $75- Complex as always on the nose, with fresh mint, smoke and leather above wild berry and dark currant aromas. Deep, rich and explosive with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into complex undertones of campfire smoke, cedar, café mocha, peppery spice, road tar and charcoal through the long finish. Weightless on the palate for its incredible depth, lingering with firm tannins. Structured and impressive. Syrah.

2) Behrens Sainte Fumee 2011, 93 Points, $55- Toasty and leathery aromas show wild berry fruit undertones. Elegant and peppery on the palate entry, as the dark berry and black licorice take a backseat to the earthy leather, peppery smoked meat and graphite notes. Amazing texture through the extended length, and proof of what a great winemaker can do with a cool vintage. Syrah.

3) Seghesio Petite Sirah Il Cinghiale 2010, 92 Points, $38- Inky purple fruit aromas. Prune, raisin, black licorice and fig flavors are intense and detailed on the palate, leading into complex, layered undertones of road tar, charcoal and peppery spice, finishing with a smooth, extended length. A powerful, masculine wine; not for the faint of heart.

4) Behrens Front Man 2011, 91 Points, $80- Ripe, exciting nose of red plum, cherry and hints of cedar. Bursting at the seams with its flawless red currant fruit and forest floor notes. Smooth, polished and seductive. Finessed and textured, with a long finish of herbal spice lingering. Merlot.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Aromas of fresh pine and cedar with powdery cocoa bean influences. Silky and elegant body that shows the cool climate of the vintage with its forest floor, loam and chocolate notes hanging above the black cherry and dark raspberry fruit. Shows a remarkably polished texture for this vintage, with refined tannins adding structure. Lingers long with cedar and vanilla bean spice.

6) Girard Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Aromas of leather, chocolate and dark red berries. Chewy texture shows muscular red fruit notes of dark raspberry and black cherry. Earthy leather, tar and briar show up underneath but this is quite velvety overall for the varietal. Long finish shows firm tannins but has lots of cellar potential.

Downs After Dark and Shoemaker Mile Picks

June 13, 2014

Following a BRUTAL Triple Crown season for yours truly, I’ve decided to get back to basics. That means abandoning exactas and trifectas until I can bring home some winners and get my confidence back. After all, you can’t hit the exacta or the trifecta if you can’t pick the winner. So let’s start there and see how we do, playing win bets, place bets and a narrow Pick 3 at Churchill Downs. (All times EST as I will be in Indianapolis this weekend).

Race 6: Matt Winn, 8.5f, 8:30 PM

There’s lots of familiar three year-old faces in here, and there’s also a lot of speed, as Tapiture, Rise Up, Almost Famous and The Admiral all figure to go to the lead early in this 7 horse field. Of those, we like the chances of ALMOST FAMOUS best. He wired the field in his last start over this very track, an 8.5f allowance, where he posted a 102 Beyer, which tops the field. He’s 3/4 lifetime at CD, and seems the horse for the course that appears to be rounding into form in his second start off a two month layoff. For the pace meltdown play, we’ll look to CONQUEST TITAN, who runs off a two month layoff that he likely needed. Before a puzzling 4th place finish in a weak Tampa Bay Derby and a 5th place finish in a very tough Arkansas Derby that was probably better than it looked, he showed an impressive turn of foot that should suit him here based on the setup. He closed well over this track to win an allowance at 8f last November, and his hard closing 2nd at GP in the Holy Bull was remarkable considering how poorly that track played against his style, and he finished ahead of the top choice in that race. TAPITURE is accomplished enough and a gutsy colt, but seemed to trail off in the spring as the distances of his races increased. He shows a win over this course at the distance last November and cuts back following a 15th place Kentucky Derby run to a distance more fitting, but still has never run a triple digit Beyer, and appears beatable on top as the short-priced favorite.

Picks:
1) Almost Famous (2-1)
2) Conquest Titan (10-1)
3) Tapiture (9-5)

Bets:
Place: Conquest Titan
Pick 3: Almost Famous, Conquest Titan

Race 7: Fleur de Lis, 9f, 9:05 PM

It would require quite a leap of faith to go against favored ON FIRE BABY in this spot. Her last three Beyers of 92, 98 and 94 rank as the top three in the field, so she towers over the competition on figures. She’s also 3 for 5 lifetime at CD, and her second place finish at Oaklawn just 1.25 lengths behind Close Hatches was flattered when that one ran back to win the Ogden Phipps over highly regarded fillies Beholder and Princess of Sylmar. If there’s an angle to beat her here, it’s due to the potentially hot pace, as she’s likely to see pressure from Fiftyshadesofhay and Ondine. Looking for an off-the-pace type to play spoiler at a decent price in this short field, we land on FLASHY AMERICAN, who returns off a seven week rest following a career effort at Hawthorne, winning the 9f Sixty Sails and posting a 90 Beyer. Her Brisnet late pace numbers tower over the field, and she figures to get a perfect trip from post 6 where she can track the leaders and move late. FIFTYSHADESOFHAY deserves respect off her Grade 2 win in the Ruffian last out at 8f, where she showed some versatility running off the lead and posted a 92 Beyer. That was an improvement from her prior start, where she set the pace and faded badly late at the 9f distance. She has won at 9f before against weaker foes, but at likely short odds, may be worth going against for the win today at this distance.

Picks:
1) On Fire Baby 8-5
2) Flashy American 7-2
3) Fiftyshadesofhay 9-5

Bets:
Pick 3: On Fire Baby, Flashy American

Race 8: Stephen Foster, 9f, 9:39 PM

An accomplished group enters the most important race of the day. In contrast to the prior two races, this one doesn’t shape up to have a ton of speed, and for that reason we believe MOONSHINE MULLIN looks attractive at a double digit morning line in this spot. He comes off a surprising win over this track in the 8.5f Alysheba, where he wired the field and defeated highly regarded challengers Golden Ticket, Bradester and Will Take Charge, two of whom he’ll see today. He ran a 108 Beyer in the race before that against optional claimers, which is good for the second best in the field this year, and a return to that number should get the job done here without anyone to challenge him on the front end. While he stretches out in distance from his recent efforts, he’s shown success at 9f before, finishing 2nd in the 2011 Jim Dandy behind eventual Travers winner Stay Thirsty, and gets a five pound weight break here. The aforementioned WILL TAKE CHARGE threw in his first clunker in as long as we can remember when a hapless 6th in the Alysheba; we’ll give him a pass for that after a steady, consistent  campaign that dates back to last spring. He should be expected to improve off six weeks of rest, and will offer better value here than in recent memory based on his last race; take it, as he hasn’t been above 3-2 in his last four. Favored REVOLUTIONARY exits a career best effort after winning the 9.5f Pimlico Special from well off the pace, where he posted a 106 Beyer running double digit lengths off the pace through the first two calls. He cuts back in distance and wheels back quickly for this, and we’re not sure that similar racing tactics will get the job done over 9f, a distance where he was beaten by Will Take Charge in both of his last two efforts. DEPARTING appears to be a bit of a wildcard in here, as we’re just not sure what he’s capable of. He made a name for himself beating up on weak fields in 2013, but does have a win over this surface in his last following a long layoff. GOLDEN TICKET finished just a half length behind the top pick in his last, but seems best closing into shorter distances and into hotter paces.

Picks:
1) Moonshine Mullin 10-1
2) Will Take Charge 5-2
3) Revolutionary 2-1
4) Departing 9-2
5) Golden Ticket 8-1

Bets:
Win/Place: Moonshine Mullin
Pick 3: Moonshine Mullin, Will Take Charge

Bonus Race at Santa Anita:

Race 7: Shoemaker Mile, 8f, 7:00 PM

A remarkable collection of talent enters for this edition, as the three horses with the four highest turf Beyer figures of 2014 meet here. Of the seven entered, five of these horses want to run on the lead, and we believe that sets up nicely for our top pick JACK MILTON, who does his best running from off the pace and appears in career form in his third off the layoff shipping west from Belmont. He posted a career high Beyer of 104 closing from off the pace in his last at 8f, and may have found his niche at this distance. He will be in receipt of five pounds from the high weight, and it doesn’t hurt that his stablemate Pulpit’s Express is entered here way above his depth in a clear attempt to add to the pace (read: Rabbit). The highly regarded OBVIOUSLY wasted no time getting back to business in his last, destroying a Grade 3 field on the lead at this distance following a 6 month layoff, posting a field high 107 Beyer. He’ll get a ground saving trip from the rail and will be the one to catch, but could be compromised by all the other speed. Still, we prefer his sharp current form slightly to WINNING PRIZE, another highly regarded front-runner who posted back to back 105 Beyers this winter over the SA strip, but runs off a three month layoff here. SUMMER FRONT has put together a solid career closing from off the pace in races like this, and seems logical cutting back from a hard closing runner-up finish at 9f in his last. However, he wasn’t flattered when the horse that beat him there came back to run a dull 5th in the Manhattan at BEL, and his speed figures (98, 102) rank just below the top choices. It would be no surprise to see him come on late for a piece but we will try to beat him for the top spot as he makes his first start over the SA strip.

Picks:
1) Jack Milton (3-1)
2) Obviously (9-5)
3) Winning Prize (5-2)
4) Summer Front (6-1)

Bets:
Win/ Place: Jack Milton

Belmont’s Biggest Day Ever- Card Picks 5-11

June 7, 2014

P=Pace, S= Stalker, C= Closer

Picks include all horses being used in any bet whatsoever. Good luck.

Race 5: 12:54- Woody Stephens, 7f

1- Bayern (5-1) P

Had rough trip in Belmont and rough luck in Derby Trial DQ, now gets rail spot against a field loaded with speed. Still, shows a 98 Beyer from SA allowance win at 8f, which is second in the field, but figs have been in decline since then.

2- Financial Mogul (30-1) C

Closing type should get a nice pace to run at here, but may be a cut below in terms of talent, following a 6th place finish in the 7f Bay Shore last out, gets blinkers off 2 month layoff.

3- Havana (6-1) P

Highly regarded in his 2 year old season following 8f Champagne win over the BEL surface, but wasn’t sharp in return race following injury, finishing 3rd against weaker. A bit of a question mark as he attempts a return to form, far inside much of the speed.

4- Meadowood (15-1) S

Takes a class jump off 6f win at Pimlico in only his 4th career start, but is undefeated and shows the best late pace number from his last effort, but stretches out to 7f for the first time.

5- Coup de Grace (10-1) P/S

Winner of 7f Bay Shore in last attempt back in April, posting an 89 Beyer while rating off the pace, will need to improve on that figure here but could hit the board with similar racing tactics if the speed collapses.

6- Embellishing Bob (8-1) P

Winner by DQ in 8f Derby Trial after breaking maiden in third try, racing just off Bayern throughout in first stakes attempt. 94 Beyer appears competitive here, but seasoning remains a question against a speedy field.

7- Tonito M (20-1) S

Was 2nd after a rough trip in 7f race at SA in first US start following dominating wins on the Puerto Rico circuit, figures to get a nice trip behind the speed, and is eligible to improve off 83 Beyer number in second race off the ship.

8- Favorite Tale (12-1) P

Upset Havana in last start at 6f over this surface but was nowhere to be found in the Bay Shore, may prefer shorter sprints.

9- Spot (30-1) S

Closed from off the pace to win the 7f Swale at GP, but low Beyer of 87 was justified in two subsequent efforts, as he finished well off the board against tougher foes. Has yet to duplicate the turn of foot shown in the Swale.

10- Kobe’s Back (15-1) C

Will certainly get the right setup here to make his late run, which he demonstrated in winning the 7f San Vincente at SA four starts back, posting a 95 Beyer, which tops the field at the distance. Missed the win in the Bay Shore by just a half length and may see more pace here; for the runner with the best career late pace number of 105, he seems most logical to pick up the pieces. The choice.

11- Social Inclusion (7-5) P

By far the class of the field, but has seen declining Beyers since massive 110 in 8.5f allowance win at GP. Still, he’s talented enough to battle this type of contested pace and still have plenty left at this distance, must use defensively on top while seeking value elsewhere.

12- Top Fortitude (20-1) P

Rated and drew away impressively to win the 7f La Barrera last out, but sat behind pretty leisurely pace and 85 Beyer confirms this, will have tougher ones to chase this time around.

13- Pure Sensation (30-1)

Steps up in class following 2nd place finish ahead of highly regarded Havana in that one’s return, speedster draws wide and looks up against it.

Picks:

1) Kobe’s Back 15-1

2) Social Inclusion 8-5

3) Tonito M 20-1

4) Coup De Grace 10-1

Race 6: 1:32- Acorn, 8f

1- Fashion Plate (12-1) P

Didn’t run a lick in Oaks after the ship to CD, but had dominated SA on the lead. Gets a tough post against a speedy field that may give more pressure than she can handle.

2- House Rules (12-1) P/S

Races after a 2 month layoff shipping in from GP, Beyer figures between 80-90 are well below the best here, but she could conceivably work out a ground saving trip if she settles back. Breaking between two speed horses will make that a tough task, pass.

3- Fiftyshadesofgold (8-1) P

Chased division leader Untapable when a distant 2nd at FG, won at 7f in last but will face more pressure on the front end this time stretching back out, 94 Beyer is the second highest in the field, however. In the mix for a piece, but worried that the speed will be her undoing as she has never won beyond 7f.

4- Sweet Whiskey (20-1) P/S

Stretches out the 8f for the first time and makes a class leap here, in a tough spot off a 7 week layoff.

5- Sweet Reason (10-1) S/C

Stalking style should suit here in third race off the layoff, as 2 yo form was solid and she’s had some tough racing luck since winning the 7f Spinaway. Still, will need to make up 7 lengths on favored My Miss Sophia following 3rd place finish in the 9f Gazelle last out.

6- Tiz So Sweet (20-1) P

Speedster moves way up in class on short seasoning, low speed figures suggest she will be up against it in a field loaded with front-running types.

7- Unbridled Forever (10-1) S

Figures to get first run on the speed if the pace collapses, and while well beaten by foes My Miss Sophia (6 lengths) and Fiftyshadesofgold (1.75 lengths) in her last two starts, she should see a much more favorable race shape here. Her speed figures are consistent and improving and she deserves a flyer here at long odds on a pace angle, the choice.

8- My Miss Sophia (6-5) P

On paper, she towers over this field with a field high 100 Beyer, and two wins and two seconds in her four career starts. However, she will see more pressure on the lead than she has before, too much to justify a play at these odds beyond defensive protection in exotics.

9- Artemis Agrotera (5-1) P

Her 8f win over the BEL surface in the Frizette last fall looks good here, but she races back after a 7 month layoff against more seasoned horses, and this combined with her front-running style could compromise her chances.

10- Lady Paradime (30-1) S

Takes a big class leap as she exits two wins over optional claiming company, but did show ability to rate off speed and close to win two back, which could be meaningful here on the bottom of deep exotics.

11- Risque Reality (30-1) S

Exits a third place finish against lesser and will stretch out to 8f having never run beyond 6.5f. Difficult to support.

12- Vero Amore (20-1) P/S

Cuts back in distance following runner-up finish in 9f Black-Eyed Susan, but 84 Beyer posted in that race doesn’t inspire confidence.

13- Euphrosyne (20-1) S

Well beaten in Black Eyed Susan, finishing 13 behind a slow race. Toss.

Picks:

1) Unbridled Forever 10-1

2) My Miss Sophia 6-5

3) Sweet Reason 10-1

4) Fiftyshadesofgold 8-1

Race 7: 2:14- Ogden Phipps, 8.5f

1-    Close Hatches (5-2) P

Sharp front-running winner of her two 2014 starts, posting a field high 100 Beyer in the 8.5f Apple Blossom, and has a win over this track in last year’s Mother Goose. Still, in head to head competition, she’s been squarely beaten by the other two powerhouses here, and we’re not sure she deserves such comparable odds, but perhaps this track will play more favorably.

2-    Antipathy (30-1) P

It takes balls to take on the two best 4 yo fillies in America off a career best optional claiming win, three back. No pun intended.

3-    Belle Gallantey (30-1) P/S

Winner of three straight, she’s shown some ability to rate off the pace and win, which counts for something here. Still moves up in class, but while there seems to be a huge separation between the top three and the others, she seems the best of the latter.

4-    Classic Point (20-1) S

Stretches out beyond 7f for the first time in her career, and oh my, what a place to attempt such a thing. Made a massive improvement in her last versus optional claimers, but was off the board by a combined 34 lengths in her prior three against stakes horses. Yikes.

5-    Beholder (7-5) P

Still the fastest filly on the block, but she may not have it as easy here as she had it winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. There’s a lot of pace to contend with, even if some of it is cheap speed, and she’s the only runner to have never run at BEL which is no small deal on a racetrack as nuanced as this one. Still, she very well may win on talent alone, but going to BEL from SA can’t be understated.

6-    Princess of Sylmar (9-5) S

Although she probably prefers a longer distance than this, she did handily win her last race coming in off a six month layoff following a tough campaign, and it would be hard to argue that the race shape doesn’t set up perfectly for her style. She settles outside all of the speed, and should be able to stalk and pounce on command if Pletcher has her ready to fire and get revenge. Interestingly, she has the top 2014 Beyer of the Big 3, a 101 in her return.

NOTE: I don’t think this race is bettable on any level. Watch and enjoy.

Picks:

1)    Princess of Sylmar (9-5)

2)    Beholder (7-5)

3)    Close Hatches (5-2)

Race 8: 3:00- Just A Game, 8f T

1- Ready Signal (30-1) C

Ran a respectable fourth behind a couple of foes here when stepping up to graded company for the first time, speed figs are still a cut below and she won’t have much pace to attack here, prefer other off-the-pace types.

2- Strathnaver (20-1) C

Exits an even 4th on the poly at 8.5f in her last following a long layoff, not sure she’s quite sharp or fast enough to contend here and running style won’t help.

3- Dame Marie (20-1) C

May have moved too soon in the 8f Turf Mile last out, where she was unable to hold on through the stretch, losing narrowly to one of today’s foes. Would be a live bomber with more pace signed on and a better timed move, but looking elsewhere.

4- Somali Lemonade (8-1) P

Appears to be in career form after switching tactics to racing near the lead, winning her last two including a field high 96 Beyer. She shouldn’t have much pressure up front and should have plenty in the tank having raced beyond this distance many times. Playable.

5- Coffee Clique (10-1)

Stalked and emerged victorious in her last, posting a competitive 95 Beyer. She’s been working well and has the look of an improving filly, and should sit close enough to the pace to be in contention late.

6- Stephanie’s Kitten (4-1) S

Defending champ was arguably the division leader a year ago before injury knocked her off course. Her last place finish after a ten month layoff last out wasn’t as bad as it looked as she missed the win by only 3 1/4 lengths, but now she runs back after nearly two months, probably prefers a hotter pace, and may not be as sharp as some of these. Moves up on softer turf.

7- Unlimited Budget (20-1) S

The always experimental filly who took on the boys at Belmont last summer tries turf for the first time, difficult to endorse.

8- Waterway Run (6-1) S

Exits a good win in the 8.5f Beaugay over good turf, where she stalked and overtook a moderate pace. 90 Beyer there isn’t quite at the level of the top contenders, but she’s worth a look.

9- Discreet Marq (5-2) P

Remarkably consistent, and has finished first or second in her last eight races. She’ll meet a tougher field here but figures to get away with pretty easy fractions on the lead, and is 3/5 at BEL. The 95 Beyer she posted when just nosed for the win last time out in her first off the layoff ranks with the best here, and she is eligible to improve, especially with a slight cutback. A single for me in the Pick 4.

10- Better Lucky (3-1)

Runner-up last year, but tough to figure following well beaten 2nd at 7f over the KEE poly in first race off a five month layoff. Was nosed out by a half a length by the top choice back in December, and that one seems sharper, but she deserves a look based on career form, as she’s never missed the board at this distance.

Picks:

1) Discreet Marq 5-2

2) Somali Lemonade 8-1

3) Coffee Clique 10-1

4) Better Lucky 3-1

Race 9: 3:48- Met Mile, 8f

1- Palace Malice (8-5) S

Arguably the best horse currently in training, he tries 8f again after winning in his two prior 2014 starts at that distance. He gets a tough post, but running style should suit, as he figures to drop back, save ground and make one run on the speed. His high Beyer of 113 creates some separation even among this contested, high quality field, but at such low odds, he can’t be the only play…but he won’t beat us on top either….he’s quite accomplished over the BEL surface.

2- Vyjack (30-1) P/S

Returned from nearly a year layoff with a 7f win over optional claiming company, but this seems an awfully tough spot to make a comeback, especially for a horse who really lost his form last year. He can beat me.

3- Scary Charly (50-1)

Scary indeed. He looks hopelessly outclassed, stepping up into one of the deepest races of the year so far right after breaking his maiden…on his 7th try.

4- Goldencents (10-1) P

Defending BC Dirt Mile champion returns from a 6 month layoff and gets slapped with a disrespectful morning line. Still, there’s reason to worry as he switches surfaces back to BEL, where he did finish 2nd as a 2 yo in the Champagne, but his glory days have come on the SA carousel. With so much speed in here we feel he may be compromised, and he hasn’t been as effective over one turn miles as two turn miles (1 for 6), and that’s an important bit. Try to beat.

5- Moreno (10-1) P

Wheels back quickly after a solid 4th place finish in the 9.5f Pimlico special, where he landed just 1.75 lengths from the win after holding the lead in the stretch. Son of Ghostzapper seems to always have the lead at the 8f mark, but connections insist on racing at longer distances…could this be his race? Look back at last year’s Jim Dandy, and you’ll see he was just a half length behind winner Palace Malice, the heavy favorite here, at the 8f mark. He’s 2/2 at BEL, and the cutback should help with the quick turnaround.

6- Central Banker (8-1) Scratched

7- Capo Bastone (30-1) C

His victory at 28-1 in last year’s King’s Bishop looks just as unbelievable now as it did then, as he’s lost his three races since by a combined 26 lengths. That was a race that he won based on a total pace meltdown, which isn’t impossible here, but this is a much tougher field with more consistent stalkers and closers.

8- Declan’s Warrior (30-1) C

An effective closer at shorter distances as a 3 yo, he really lost form at the end of last year. His most recent start at this distance led to a nearly 10 length thrashing at the hands of Palace Malice. Should be coming late, but he doesn’t look playable here.

9- Normandy Invasion (5-1) C

Popular 4 yo returns after a two month layoff, last seen easily beaten by leading HOY candidate and race foe Palace Malice. There’s a strong feeling though that a one-turn mile is right in his wheelhouse, and he’ll get a chance to prove it. Difficult to elevate him above the favorite based on the result of his last race, but certainly in the mix, as he figures to drop back and pick off the pace late.

10- Clearly Now (10-1) S

Tough-luck colt is clearly talented but can’t ever seem to get up for the win. This distance may be a bit further than he wants to go, although he’s certainly a grinding type that keeps coming, but just doesn’t seem to have the turn of foot or will to win to get to the wire first. He’s playable underneath in exotics, but we’ve lost enough money on him at this point that I can no longer bear to include him. Now watch as he ruins the trifecta.

11- Broadway Empire (20-1) P

Speedster does show a 9f win in last year’s Oklahoma Derby, but all of his wins have come in wire-to-wire fashion. That would be a difficult way to win among the likes of these.

12- Romansh (15-1) S/P

Cuts back in distance following a win in the 9f Excelsior at AQE; seems somewhat of a forgotten horse, but not sure he has the pure speed to make a meaningful impact here, especially layed off since March.

13- Shakin It Up (6-1) S

Ran a solid 2nd last out in the 7f Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day, closing well to post a 107 Beyer, which is good for 2nd highest in the field. He does have a win at 8.5 to his credit this year, and in all his 7f races, whether wins or losses, he seems to be begging for more ground. He figures to sit a solid trip just outside the speed, and is tactical enough to save ground despite a wide post. The pick.

Picks:

1) Shakin It Up 6-1

2) Palace Malice 8-5

3) Moreno 10-1

4) Normandy Invasion 6-1

Race 10: 4:42- Manhattan, 10f T

1- Imagining (7-2) P

Exits win in 10.5f Manhattan with field high last out Beyer at 10f or beyond (98) and is 5/8 lifetime at BEL. Boasts an impressive pedigree (by Giant’s Causeway out of an AP Indy mare) for this distance and is tactical enough to sit just off the main speed, both of whom are drawn well outside and have never raced beyond 9f. The key question is whether he will settle behind the speedy Fire Iron or go with him; but he seems professional enough to relax from this post, in which case we feel he is a lock for the exacta and a must use in multi-race wagers.

2- Hey Leroy (12-1) S

Shows field-high Beyer for 2014 (101), although that was at 8f, in fact, he’s never raced beyond 8.5f and figures to be challenged heavily on the stretch out.

3- Rookie Sensation (12-1) S

Faded and lost lead in only prior attempt at this distance, but has been closing well from just off the pace at shorter distances recently, would need to improve speed figures in his first try over the BEL surface; has backers, and they are legion. We feel the pace here is overstated and will be subdued; Wise-guy horse.

4- Grandeur (5-1) C

Narrowly beaten 3rd in his last over this course, he gets first time Lasix here, but running style may lend better to a distance a bit longer than this, especially in a race without a ton of pace. Shows the best class in the field, but tended to fall back too far early in races earlier in his career. He stayed within 2.5 lengths from the pacesetter under easy fractions last out over this course right after the ship from Europe, and as one that’s been waiting for his breakout win for over a year now, if that change in tactical style plus the addition of Lasix isn’t enough, what is? He’ll see more pace here than last time for sure, which could help, and he is a Euro type that has done his better running on firmer ground. The pick, and if we’re wrong, we’re done with him.

5- Boisterous (8-1) S

Exits a respectable 3rd in 9f Turf Classic at CD, is 6/11 lifetime at BEL but has been inconsistent recently against top company, beaten easily by both Imagining and Seek Again in 2014. Certainly a horse for the course, but his overall inconsistency and descending form while others look ready to explode makes him tough to support.

6- Seek Again (3-1) S

Improving 4 year old gave Wise Dan all he could handle in 9f Turf Classic, shows a win at this distance from December, would need to improve speed figures (94 Beyer in last, 93 in 10f win) but should be in the mix late. The feeling here is that the Man O’War over this course was the better of the two races, and he’ll take heavy action simply due to how close he was to beating the Horse of the Year. He’s proven at this distance, interestingly in the same race that drew us towards the top pick a year ago, but seeing as how all of his other races have come up much shorter and his figs are below, we’ll try to beat him for the win, using him defensively in the second and third spots.

7- Five Iron (15-1) P

Came out of nowhere to win 8.5f Fort Marcey at BEL wire to wire at 20-1 odds, posting an impressive 100 Beyer. Figures to be the one to catch on the front end, but has never raced beyond 9f so this may be beyond his scope, especially following a somewhat freaky career effort. Will probably have the most impact on the race, without standing a real chance to win it.

8- Real Solution (5-1) S

Seeking a return to the winner’s circle in 5th start since Arlington Million victory by dq, but this is his ideal distance and he looked much improved in 2nd place finish in Man O War, just 3/4 of a length behind Imagining. Will need to run closer to the pace this time, which has been a problem, as well as his tendency to hang in the stretch. A sentimental favorite of ours that is hard to play on top this time, but always seems to find his way onto the board.

9- Kaigun (15-1) S/C

Former claimer has finished a combined 2.25 lengths behind Wise Dan in his last two races, staging impressive late runs, but he’s another that will stretch out from 8 and 9f races here. Still, looking at the ground he gobbled up over the reigning Horse of the Year over his last two races, which equates to over a length on average over the final furlong, we get the sense of a rapidly improving gelding that deserves a shot to make another run into the trifecta,

10- Chamois (15-1) P

Nosed out for the place by Hey LeRoy in last, he’s winless at BEL and has never run beyond 8.5f, will contend for early lead from wide post. Runs back quick from 5/17 start off a six month layoff. Trainer admitted that he is running back too quickly and probably won’t win, which we never like to hear a trainer admit. Could be an addition to the pace of a race where the pace scenario looms large.

Picks:

1) Grandeur

2) Imagining

3) Real Solution

4) Seek Again

5) Kaigun

Race 11: 5:52- Belmont, 12f

1- Medal Count (20-1) S

His Derby was much better than it looked, as he had to check hard into Danza when moving late and still managed to finish a respectable 8th. He’s fresh, having skipped the Preakness, and while his dirt form draws comparisons to Dullahan, another Dale Romans trained colt who floundered in this spot, his pedigree leaves no questions regarding distance concerns. A live exotics player.

2- California Chrome (3-5) P

There isn’t much more to be said about this spectacularly professional colt, who will try to become the first Triple Crown winner of our lifetime here. His running style suits perfectly for this race, as he is able to rate and push a button at any desired moment. A win here would not surprise, but if we didn’t want him at 5-2 in the Derby, we can’t take him at the inverse of that in the toughest Belmont in recent memory. His Preakness was certainly not as strong a race as his Derby, and for as many Triple Crown hopefuls as we’ve seen succumb to the grueling distance of this race, he’ll be played only very narrowly on top, but with much respect underneath.

3- Matterhorn (30-1) S

Exits a well beaten 4th over a sloppy BEL track in the Peter Pan, and doesn’t appear to have the seasoning or the pedigree to contend here.

4- Commanding Curve (15-1) C

Getting no respect on the Morning Line, the Derby runner up comes in fresh after skipping the Preakness, but undoubtedly will draw comparison to last year’s runner up Golden Soul, who was nowhere to be found here. He received a favorable trip in the Derby, but let’s not forget that he finished the final ¼ faster than any other horse in the field and was the only colt making up ground through the final stretch. That doesn’t always translate to a Belmont winner, but he should probably be used underneath in exotics.

5- Ride on Curlin (12-1) C

The expert consensus seems to be that he is a tired colt after his career effort in the Preakness, but he’s been a favorite of ours since the winter, and we can’t help but love his throwback style. We’ll play contrarian here, and argue that he has actually improved with every race, even under a tough campaign, similar to how Oxbow and Will Take Charge matured last year. A more logical comparison would be Palace Malice, another Curlin colt, who got better with every race last year just as his sire did, and has continued to do so in 2014. One man’s tired colt can be another man’s improving colt, and his workouts got better at BEL as the week went on. We give him a strong look to hit the exacta based purely on his toughness.

6- Matuszak (30-1) C

Son of Bernardini was crushed in his last by a colt that opted against this race and will run in Race #2 on the undercard. What does that tell you?

7- Samraat (20-1) P

Hard-trier actually ran a great Derby, but simply doesn’t appear to have the genetic configuration to contest a race of this length, especially as he will be expected to press along with California Chrome early. He will be in requirement of an oxygen mask by the 10f point if that is the case, and those last two furlongs could be a long, long run.

8- Commissioner (20-1) S

Deserves a look if only for his potential based on pedigree. He’s by Belmont winner A.P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare, also a Belmont winner (and Triple Crown crusher), and you don’t see that very often. Sure, up to this point he’s seemed a one-paced grinder that can’t accelerate, but those are the types that often get up for this race. He’s been improving and hasn’t yet run a race suited for his running style, and much crazier things have happened than him winning this race (Da’Tara? Sarava?) Still, we’ll try not to get too carried away as his prior form is still subpar, and use him underneath to spice up exotics, but if he drifts up above 40-1 and there’s a live Pick 4 on the line, a win bet to hedge is mandatory.

9- Wicked Strong (6-1) S

Our Derby pick ran incredibly well over an impossible trip to finish a solid 4th, and wisely skipped the Preakness to freshen up for this. The big misconception about this colt is that he is some sort of deep closer, which can spell disaster in a race this long, but with a much smaller field and less absurd post, he should be able to stake out a trip similar to the one he had in the Wood Memorial, settling just off the pacesetters and then letting loose with one big run. We’ve had a decent history of picking Triple Crown spoilers (Victory Gallop, Touch Gold, Empire Maker all correctly picked as winners), and this one deserves another shot at overlayed odds. The choice.

10- General A Rod (20-1) P/S

You have to respect his connections for contesting all three legs of the Triple Crown, as this is a solid colt that always fires but just can’t seem to find that turn of foot; he’s more of a one-paced grinder that just keeps coming, and that isn’t the worst style in the world for a race like this. He figures to be part of a soft early pace and could certainly hang on for a piece, but he is difficult to support on top.

11- Tonalist (8-1) P/S

This is the most polarizing colt in the field, coming off a strong win over the slop on this BEL surface in the 9f Peter Pan, posting a 101 Beyer. Still, we find it difficult to see a Tapit colt stretching out this far successfully and having any kind of impact. There is so much going against him here- the wide post, the front-running style against more seasoned colts, the seeming affinity for sloppy tracks on an 80 degree summer day in New York- and we’ll try to keep him off the board entirely.

Picks:

1) Wicked Strong 6-1

2) California Chrome 3-5

3) Ride on Curlin 12-1

4) Commissioner 20-1

5) Medal Count 20-1

6) Commanding Curve 15-1

7) General A Rod 20-1