The depth of the Grade 1 Carter Handicap field provides exotic bettors with a dream handicap opportunity. The mind reels with the exacta, trifecta and superfecta possibilities in a race featuring some of the top sprinting talent in the country.

Mind Control-Carter Handicap
Mind Control brings late speed, the ability to overcome adversity and a three-race winning streak into Saturday’s Carter Handicap. (Image: Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

The flip side of that coin, however, comes with figuring out which of perhaps five legitimate contenders can prevail in a race loaded with depth, solid form and late speed.

Saturday’s seven-furlong Carter Handicap, named for tugboat captain William Carter, who put up the purse for the first race in 1895, is one of four graded stakes on Belmont Park’s Saturday card. It’s the first Grade 1 of the track’s shortened, 25-day season and the first Grade 1 of five consecutive Grade 1s over the next five Saturdays.

The Carter being a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race, the winner gets an all-expenses paid ticket into November’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

All the Contenders Bring Key Weapons to the Gate

Now, it’s a matter of sorting out who that winner can be. Late speed is the key to seven-furlong races and the Carter is loaded with it, starting with your 3/1 favorite Performer. Winner of his last four starts — including the Grade 3 Discovery Stakes at Aqueduct last November — Performer somehow earns favorite status despite sitting out the last six months.

His pace-pressing style produced victories at distances from six to nine furlongs, but coming out of that layoff into this deep of a pool is cause for pause.

“He had a very good winter (in Florida),” trainer Shug McGaughey told the New York Racing Association. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger. If we can get a good, solid effort out of him and move ahead, we’ll be happy. He had four solid races last year and I think it got him to this year in good position.”

Carter Handicap

Morning Line (jockey)

  1. Firenze Fire, 7/2 (Manny Franco)
  2. Performer, 3/1 (Joel Rosario)
  3. Still Having Fun 15/1 (Dylan Davis)
  4. Nitrous, 15/1 (Jose Ortiz)
  5. Network Effect, 8/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr.)
  6. Midnightcharly, 50/1 (Mychel Sanchez)
  7. American Anthem, 15/1 (Kendrick Carmouche)
  8. Bon Raison, 30/1 (Eric Cancel)
  9. Majestic Dunhill, 20/1 (Reylu Gutierrez)
  10. Mind Control, 4/1, (John Velazquez)
  11. Vekoma, 7/2 (Javier Castellano)

The horse in the best position coming into the Carter is Mind Control (4/1). Entering the Belmont Park gate on a three-race winning streak – all graded stakes – makes the Stay Thirsty progeny hungry for No. 4. Mind Control already owns 2020 victories in the Grade 3 Toboggan and the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap, when he stumbled coming out of the gate, yet won by 1 ¼ lengths. All four of his wins have come at seven furlongs.

“I thought he was beat that day (in the Toboggan). I thought maybe I didn’t have him tight enough, but he surged to the wire and galloped out strong. He’s a genuine special horse,” trainer Greg Sacco said about a horse who cracked the $1 million mark in his last race.

Vekoma, Firenze Fire Own This Distance

That brings us to a pair of 7/2 offerings who figure in the equation. First is Vekoma, who finished 13th in last year’s Kentucky Derby. The Candy Ride progeny took the next 9 ½ months off, then blew away the rust with a 3 ¾-length romp in the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March. Along with his maiden-breaking victory at a 2018 sprint, that illustrates Vekoma is dangerous at this distance.

So is the other 7/2 choice: Firenze Fire. The Carter’s leading money winner ($1.84 million) and owner of 10 victories and 15 placings in 24 races brings his own three-race winning streak into the proceedings. Another pace-presser, Firenze Fire kept up with two of the best sprinters in the world: Mitole and the recently retired Imperial Hint, finishing second to both in stakes races.

But Firenze Fire comes with a potential douse of cold water. This is his first race under new trainer Kelly Breen, who took command after federal officials indicted former trainer Jason Servis on drug-doping charges.

If You’re Seeking Value, Plug in Network Effect

That lineup already provides juicy exotic possibilities, so why not add a value variable to the exotic equation? That would be Network Effect (8/1), the Chad Brown-trainee, who won both his starts at this distance. That said, those victories came in an allowance and an ungraded, black-type stakes. Network Effect’s only Grade 1 outing came at the Cigar Mile last December, where he finished a well-beaten eighth.

“It’s a big step up for him, but he seems to be an improving horse, so we’re giving it a shot,” said Brown, who summoned ace jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. for the ride.

The pick: Mind Control. But include all of the above in your exotics.