January 18, 2002

It's That Time of the Year...

Sixteen weeks from now, you won't see pages and pages covering lines and lines of glowing words about potential Kentucky Derby winners. Gone will be the whispers about this horse having had a killer workout. Those conspiratorial nods over another horse and his 10-length maiden win? Also history. The shifting weight of the mob hopping off one bandwagon and onto the next will settle on a few worthy camps, and what at one point numbered a screaming throng of up to a hundred horses will be narrowed down to no more than 20, with the serious population of strong contenders for the Run for the Roses comprising just five or six three-year-olds.

However, such a distillation is not even close to percolating, and on the second Saturday of January, everybody's hopes are, it seems, still strong and clear. But tomorrow come two opportunities, one on each coast, for the Road to Louisville to begin unwinding, with the poor-performers in either race ready to serve a role similar to the one played by those hapless contestants voted out of "Survivor" on the first episode. Or something like that.

The weirdness for this year begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, with the Grade III, $100,000 Holy Bull Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth at Gulfstream. A disappointing seven are entered.

By now, the oft-repeated characterization of three-year-olds -- you know, that they're "consistently inconsistent" -- should be somewhat in your consciousness, of if you need further convincing, look at the average mutuel in stakes races for three-year-olds. The upsets occur.

A thoughtful analysis of stakes races for three-year-olds involves looking at each contender and asking two questions: Will this horse continue its outstanding efforts? Will this horse reverse its disappointing form? In other words, it's time to draw up substantive arguments for or against improvement and decline.

If you were with us throughout 2001, you'll recall this was the approach we attempted to provide here all spring (and summer) long. For a brief refresher, go to the archives of this electronic newsletter by clicking on this link..

Back to the 'Bull. The morning-line favorite is 8-5 Harlan's Holiday, followed closely by 9-5 Nokoma. There has to be a good reason, or three, for these guys to be held in such high regard, and typically it's because they've run some fast races leading up to today's.

Indeed, Harlan's Holiday's last race tells the story -- a giant leap forward in terms of his final-time figure in his final race as a two-year-old last November at Churchill Downs in a one-turn mile. But already with this horse, we see that there are questions, and lots of them.

How will Harlan's Holiday fare off the two-month-plus layoff? Harlan's Holiday already has won for twice as large a purse -- is today a warmup, or a serious all-out try? There probably are more-important races down the road for this guy, huh?

Then there's the issue of his runaway improvement over his last four races, one major step-up in ability after another. Can he be expected to put in a similar move forward off the bench? See, how quickly the concerns can pile up?

Nokoma has yet to reach the same level of ability as Harlan's Holiday. He too is coming off a break, though a shorter one than Harlan's Holiday has experienced. This is only the second try in graded-stakes company for Nokoma. Has he matured sufficiently during his rest to tackle this kind?

As always, pace and distance are crucial elements to doping-out a stakes race for three-year-olds. The pace is always robust, and many young horses who have been accustomed to getting things their own way on the lead often don't react positively to the sudden companionship toward the front. Likewise, horses that have been cruising at six or even seven furlongs must now grapple with an additional turn around the clubhouse and another furlong or more of ground to cover.

In the Holy Bull, the field is loaded with horses who know no other way than setting the pace or sitting within very close distance of it. The distance factor doesn't seem to be as problematic, with only one of the seven having failed repeatedly around two turns or past a mile. A scan of the field.

O'Rocky is already a nine-race veteran. Encouragingly, he dispensed his best effort last time, his second try around two turns on dirt. However, the improvement was only slight, not dramatic, and his style of running toward the front seems in doubt this time, given the likelihood of the fastest pace he's ever encountered. It's doubtful O'Rocky can rise to the level necessary to win this.

Booklet has tried two turns twice, winning both. The improvement he showed in his first route race was reasonably good, though not earth-shattering. He followed that up with a decline in performance in a much richer race; yet he still was able to beat 13 others in that race while going gate-to-wire. He seems unlikely to try to take back now, though trainer experiments are common in this context -- sometimes the experiments are a success, other times they merely hasten a return to the frontrunning style in the very next start. Booklet's trainer, John Ward Jr., was able to relax Monarchos sufficiently last year all the way to a Kentucky Derby win. Does he want to tinker with Booklet today? If he thinks the horse is something special, he will, and that adds an element of doubt to how Booklet will ration his energy here.

Thiscannonsloaded resembles O'Rocky, except without the potential for being a solid two-turn route horse. Thiscannonsloaded is the one in here who hasn't scored in a route race, and this doesn't look like the right place to gamble that he will this time.

Nokoma rated ever so slightly in his most recent effort, a mild rally in which he sat off a mild pace put closed wildly, in racehorse time while jumping up in class big-time. It also was his first try around two turns. Trainer Todd Pletcher must have been encouraged by that race to sit on him till now, the beginning of Derby season. A win isn't necessary here -- just more experimentation, with the hopes of peaking twice this season, once during a major Derby prep, the other on Kentucky Derby day.

Speedy Leon is the odd commodity in here in that he actually knows how to pass a goodly number of horses throughout the race en route to a winning effort. However, the horses he's passed have not been much, and it shows in his pedestrian speed numbers. Still, he'll get by far the fastest pace he's ever seen, and it would be no surprise if he defaulted by some tired horses at the end here. Or maybe not. Probably not. Speedy Leon looks way out of place.

Harlan's Holiday has won off the pace, but only when in the watchdog spot in a field, letting a lone frontrunner get loose before reeling him in late. He's no doubt the fastest horse in the race, but will he be allowed to show it here? Or will one horse sprint to the front and, the chase over, Harlan's Holiday be geared down to save it for another time?

Thatsallmon is lightly raced, which means his upsdie is large. But his efforts so far have lacked brilliance or determination. It's hard to see a big-enough jump forward for him.

Booklet, Nokoma and Harlan's Holiday seem to own this race outright. Trainer manipulations and conditioning purposes will go a long way toward figuring out the winner. As will the tote board. Price is a super determinant for making a play in stakes races for three-year-olds. Any well-concealed reasons for major improvement (or decline by a superfavorite) can be backed with money when the odds are healthy, which is often the case when the overhyped juveniles and other gee-whiz two-year-olds start playing against much more earnest foes.

But here, the size of the field and its composition don't allow for a big score, it seems. Nokoma's gang charge to the wire in the Remsen was impressive, and Booklet could be given the opportunity to try to take 'em gate-to-wire. It's not a stretch to see Harlan's Holiday getting squeezed out of the exacta, if Booklet wings away on the front end and Nokoma displays his superior closing kick near the wire. Let's try it that way.

On the West Coast, the Grade II, $150,000 Santa Catalina kicks off the local Derby season, and only five were game enough to try to knock off major 2-5 morning-line favorite Siphonic, who lures regular jockey Jerry Bailey on a cross-country flight from Gulfstream.

Siphonic appears to be the real deal, too. Labamta Babe has shown ability, but, like his stablemate in the Frankel barn You, Labamta Babe's maiden win in a claimer is a warning sign that this guy doesn't have much quality and is unlikely to last the Derby route. Cottonwood Cowboy also has been OK, but doesn't figure to be a better horse around two turns on dirt. Kedington will have to move forward big-time, but his races so far show he's not that type of explosive horse. National Park is the oddball, but he doesn't resemble a dirt horse.

Two Derby preps, and what? Bupkis! But there'll be many more down the road. After all, we're just getting underway. When the fields get bigger, the pace gets stronger, the superfavorites become more apparent and the reputations set to take a fall, the long prices will follow. We should find something good in the next 15 weekends.

And there you have it.

Our Weekly Brazen Attempt to Try to Sell You Something...How Dare We!

Yep, we do have a book for everything. And some mopes have to flap their busy brown beaks in every forum about every fleeting topic, too. We'll let you figure out whether it's the books or the beaks that'll help you win more. And, yes, we are grinning, thanks.

That said, check out the full assortment of books we have to offer. No, they're not free like the bloviations on most message boards, but it is true that you do get what you pay for, though paying anything for a random-number generator is still too much.

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New Contest Is for the Long Run

If you prefer a route of ground to a one-turn sprint, the current edition of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest is for you! For more details, please click here.

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