Kudos to trainer John T. Ward Jr. and jockey Jorge Chavez for getting another gritty win out of Booklet in last week's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. In what seemed like a rerun of the earlier Holy Bull, Booklet sped to the front, this time taking them around two turns before fully extending himself in the stretch to outlast Harlan's Holiday again, though by a much shorter margin. A jump longer, and the result would have been reversed, with Harlan exacting revenge.
So, is Booklet the second coming of Spend a Buck? Or maybe just this year's version of Balto Star? Or, worse, Outofthebox? In other words, can he keep lasting on the lead as the distances lengthen?
You wouldn't necessarily call Booklet blindingly brilliant. He doesn't that much like an unrateable tearaway-type who discourages the competition early and then coasts home. Yes, he will get a couple of lengths ahead of the field, but they always come a-callin' somewhere during the race, and, so far, he's managed to keep them at bay.
Unfortunately, he's going to get more companionship on the front end from here on out, and just to keep up, let alone get clear, he'll have to spend more energy than he's had to. And judging by the way he's finished his two route races this year, that won't be good.
Most of the recklessly frontrunning three-year-olds who become serious Derby threats do it by opening up early and, emboldened by the lack of company up front, maintain a fantastically fast rate of speed in the late stages. The Racing Form is filled with the past performances of ordinary horses who do precisely that -- get an uncontested lead and throw monster figures. Well, it also works that way for upper-crust, nonclaiming, three-year-old speedburners who want to progress all the way to the Derby. They have to show something big late, and not just get weary toward the end, if they want to gain some measure of respect or accomplishment.
That has not been the case -- not yet, anyway -- with Booklet. He's been the grim hanger-on in the lane. Visually, Harlan's Holiday looked every bit the comebacker in their meeting in the Holy Bull, and looked ever more like the improving, second-off-the-layoff beast he was in the Fountain of Youth. Measured against Booklet's modest late-running ability, Harlan's Holiday completely figures to throttle his nemesis the next time they hook up.
True, Harlan's Holiday could wind up as the Dollar Bill of his generation, burning enormous sums of public money with his patented, always-too-late charge at the end. But probably not. Harlan's Holiday seems ready to peak when it counts most, and trainer Kenny McPeek is holding a potent hand to play during the Triple Crown game.
McPeek had it twice as nice last weekend at Fair Grounds, where his top hopes swept the three-year-old features on consecutive days.
McPeek's Take Charge Lady, making her seasonal debut in the Silverbulletday on Saturday, lived up to her name a few strides out of the gate and opened up on them, at times a perilous strategy at Fair Grounds. But it didn't matter. Take Charge Lady was always well-clear, and the race was over even by the top of the imposingly long lane in New Orleans.
Indeed, Take Charge Lady's romping front-end score was a perfect illustration of the kind of frontrunner you want to have faith in during the early stages of the three-year-old campaign. Unlike Booklet's desperate, rosary-clutching gasping in the final furlong, Take Charge Lady's widening through the last 660 feet confirmed her quality.
A day later, McPeek's Repent also made his seasonal debut, in the Risen Star. Applying the exact opposite strategy, Repent flew home late and buried the frontrunners, looking every bit like he was in a class of his own at the end.
The implications of the weekend's three-year-old action stack up solidly in McPeek's favor. His horses have returned from promising two-year-old seasons and have, if not exceeded their established quality, at least maintained it. It's scary to think that Repent and Take Charge Lady could be even more impressive. And Harlan's Holiday is ready to show his best next time out.
The rest of the three-year-olds are either biding their time or sandbagging or just disappointments waiting to happen, it seems. Siphonic hasn't been working as regularly as you'd expect. Came Home probably won't flash the same brilliance around two turns. Johannesburg will have a single turf-sprint prep before shipping across the pond. Some of the top hopes from last year have already regressed, unlikely to be heard from again.
Granted, it's early, but the more McPeek's horses show now, the less work McPeek himself will need to do to get them where they need to be. Think of Baffert's Point Given last year, a monster juvenile who came back better than ever as a three-year-old. That, right now, looks like the pattern Repent, Take Charge Lady and even Harlan's Holiday have on display.
No true marquee events for the sophomores this weekend, but a couple of mild events.
Aqueduct hosts the Best Turn Stakes, but it's at six furlongs. The morning-line favorite is the coupled entry of War Native and Smooth Jazz, both saddled by Tony Dutrow. Both make sense, too. War Native has been pretty fast -- at least relative to this group -- in two of his last three, and should be offering his best when most of the others in here are starting to tire. Conversely, Smooth Jazz figures to be up close early, as he was in his only start, a reasonably good maidenbreaker as the even-money choice. This member of the Dutrow clan is excellent with his second-timers, as are Smooth Jazz's parents.
Final Table, is all speed, all the time. He came back last time to make his three-year-old debut in smashing fashion, shaking loose on a good pace before posting a career-best final-time figure. It's his race to lose on the front end.
And President Butler has enough to win this. His last race was his local debut, a second-place finish. He has a nice early-late balance of ability for this one, and has to be considered, especially if the other betting interests suck too much action. The 'President is worth a vote at just a shade above his 6-1 morning line.
Over at Turfway, it's the fillies going a two-turn mile in the Valdale. Many of them are trying the distance game for the first time, which always makes for interesting handicapping.
Emeraldforajudge is the morning-line favorite, but could be in for a challenge on the front end, if that's indeed the way she tries to go. However, she has won at this exact trip, though the circumstances behind that victory were ideal. She might give it up a little earlier this time.
Two horses we're expecting to improve with the added distance are Art Fair and Iffy. Art Fair has actually been pretty good as a sprinter and should be able to display a similar, if not better, level of ability as a router. Iffy, on the other hand, has been modest at the short distances but could finally come to hand in this context. Remember, with these developing horses, poor or moderate sprint races can be forgiven, especially if the pedigree is strongly tilted toward longer distances. After all, if the horse was bred to succeed as a sprinter, it probably would have thrown a very good race or two in that regard. Cut the budding routers some slack when it comes to their substandard sprints.
Turf Paradise cards the Palo Verde at six and a half furlongs. The morning-line favorite is Jetson, 3-1, and he's one who actually tried the route game in his last two. But he faded late in those races and now is back in his proper milieu -- a sprint race. He's the class of this field but might lack his usual alacrity, especially on the turnback.
We'll try to beat him with Duddly Doo Run and Flying Supercon. 'Duddly showed nice ability as a two-year-old and now returns from a six-month rest. He has some versatility on his side. As for 'Supercon, he's making just his second career start, but the debut was solid, a hard-fought pacesetting trip before drawing off. He has much more room for improvement, especially at good odds. Take either one at 5-1 or better, and try boxing them up if the exacta will-pays are in the $50 (for $2) neighborhood.
Would you believe the center of the three-year-old universe tomorrow is Tampa Bay Downs? We kid you not. They'll be running the Suncoast Stakes and the Sam F. Davis Stakes, preps for the Tampa Bay Oaks and Tampa Bay Derby, respectively.
Canadian trainer Mark Casse will go for a clean sweep (the poorman's Kenny McPeek?) in the events. In the Suncoast, he sends out morning-line favorite Expected Roll, 5-2. With a couple of solid sprint races over the track and now getting back to ther favored route game, she looks very strong. It could be tough to deny her.
We'll respect her while dissing second choice on the morning line Rebecca's Charm, a first-router who, due to a shaky pedigree, might not be up to this longer struggle. We'll attempt a favorite-longshot exacta between Expected Roll and outsider Bitdaboss. Bitdaboss's last, her first as a three-year-old, was simply too horrible to take seriously. She obviously needed that one and though she might still be a touch short, the full field calls for at least a handful of well-meant big prices. Bitdaboss is our surprise candidate.
Finally, in the Sam F. Davis, Casse will attempt for perfection with another Valid Expectations horse: Expected Hour. However, Expected Hour hasn't shown the same route fondness as Expected Roll. Indeed, Expected Hour hasn't shown any route races at all. And that might not be good for him, given his dam's reluctance with first-routers. We'll see.
Bunk N Ted, part of a coupled entry, has been perfect so far, and could very well be running on the best at the end. He'll make his presence felt inside the stretch. And Tails of the Crypt could be the upsetter, 8-1 on the morning line. He's another proven deep-closer, and will be stretching his legs when they swing for home. With a solid pace forecast ahead of them, both should be able to win if they feel good tomorrow. Try 'em at 6-1.
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Mike Helm's Debut Trainer Guide 2002 is now available. It goes beyond the unthinking monotony of the fat numbers-crunchers by providing specific situations behind a trainer's debut wins. It adds texture to the numbing stats provided by everyone else. For a better understanding of the hows and whys behind debut-trainer patterns, definitely check out Helm's work. Click on this link to the Cynthia Publishing Company Handicapping Store.
Of course, don't forget about the newest offering from the illustrious Mark Cramer: the authoritatively titled Hidden Probabilities: Hard-Core Research for X-Rated Horseplayers.
In inimitable Cramer style and packed with unique research, Galileo-inspired thinking and writing (with high-level concepts made easy to grasp, thanks to Cramer's renowned facility with the English language), this new booklet is an ambitious blend of the nearly mechanical, the almost-magical and the fully inspired. That's because our friend Cramer takes 10 time-honored and simple handicapping concepts and pulses them through the kink-o-master machine, coming up with a stunning creation of staggering beauty and elegance that's good enough to eat.
Whoa. That's just plain silly. But you get the idea. Hidden Probabilities: Hard-Core Research for X-Rated Horseplayers is going to be another valuable addition to the handicapping literature, courtesy of someone who knows how to do just that.
They've slugged it out for nearly four months now, looking wearier than Italy and Norway in the Olympic cross-country skiing. But here they stand, ready to fire for the 16th consecutive weekend, pushing six picks through the wickets and hoping for magic to strike.
We at On-Line at the Short Line take this opportunity to salute all the warriors who participated in the Winter Winners Endurance Test of Champions Edition of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest. Though only four contestants remain mathematically alive to capture the Win Division, there were many more brave souls who took their best shots.
On the Bankroll side of things, two valiant players are assured a profit for the duration, and that number could increase with a well-placed bomb by one of the other top contenders. The sportsmanship and camaraderie and, best of all, great handicapping exhibited throughout the winterlong contest have been a pleasure to experience -- competition minus fat egos. It's the best of all possible worlds.
Thanks to all who participated, and stay tuned for next month's traditional March Madness Edition of The Big-Prize Handicapping Contest. For more details on the current contest, please click here.
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