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As regular readers of this Blog know, I have been pounding on the CHRB to implement some important rule changes. Namely, better reporting of gelding and equipment changes; proportional Pick 6 and Pick 4 payoffs in the event of a dead-heat; and consolation Pick 4 pools in the event of a scratch—rather than automatically getting the favorite (assuming no alternate selection was selected). Well, I’m happy to report that good news is on the horizon. In their meeting on July 20, the Pari-Mutuel Operations Committee of the CHRB recommended all of these changes, which will be tremendous improvements for the horseplayer. I received an email from Mike Marten, Public Information Officer for the CHRB, which I have linked here under PMO Update. Marten spells out all the changes that were recommended or approved (the Pick 4 consolation pool ruling was approved by the full board on July 19 and figures to go into effect in about two months), and it’s hopefully now just a matter of time before implementation of the other recommendations. After spending a lot of personal time on email correspondence—with Marten and horseplayer liaison Jim Quinn)—and attending and briefly speaking at a PMO meeting during Santa Anita, it is very gratifying to perhaps have been a small instrument for positive change.

On the racing front: At Del Mar on Wednesday, GEORGIE BOY was impressive breaking his maiden in the Graduation Stakes, properly surviving a stewards’ inquiry in the process…have to admire 8-year-old PUBLICATION, closing from last off a walking early pace to whip his younger opponents in an optional claimer.

On Thursday, congratulations to jockey Luis Garcia, winning his first race in California aboard POLISH PETE in the 4th…we got our first two-turn wire-to-wire winner of the meet when class dropper YEARLY ATTITUDE scored an easy victory in the 3rd…extremely close photo finishes in races 4, 5 and 8, with a dead-heat between COMMANDER GARY and SEVEN NATION ARMY in the 5th.

On Friday, “betting owner” John Liviakis crushed again, hammering his THE WHITE LADY down to even money before romping home in the 3rd…Peter Miller again (his sixth winner of the meet) when CARSON’S COPPER won first off the claim…exciting finish in the 7th as BECRUX defended his title in the featured Wickerr Handicap…22nd time was the charm for trial maiden UNBRIDLED HARMONY, who finally got it done in the nightcap. I guess anything is possible over Polytrack.

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As the circuit moved to Del Mar, I expected the normal form reversals to be even more severe because of the new Polytrack surface. I half-kiddingly suggested there would be a six-day Pick Six carryover into the start of Week 2. That hasn’t been the case (after there was one winning ticket on Thursday and two winners on Saturday) but we finally have that elusive carryover ($206,000 plus) into Monday’s card. Favorites have held their own, winning at a 32% clip, but there also has been a sprinkling of bombers ($133.80, $133, $124). Personally I’m finding it difficult to pick winners, let alone winners that pay a decent price. My best pick so far has been KRIS’ SIS, who returned a fat $9.00 when turning the tables on DOUBLE TROUBLE in Saturday’s Osunitas Handicap.

Random thoughts after five days: Closers have dominated in nine two-turn races to date, with a number of winners coming from dead last. (The closest thing to a front-running winner was BLAKE’S PASSION on Thursday, who sat second early.) No matter how slow the early fractions, late-runners are able to make up ground and win (see SUN BOAT in San Diego ‘Cap).

On turf, that surface has been more fair but closers also have held an edge, although a couple winners have laid up close and won…AFTER MARKET was awesome again in winning the Eddie Read. His last three victories have been sensational—let’s make him the early favorite in the Arlington Million…in his first day as a journeyman rider, Joe Talamo rode three winners. I was told by some how his business would slow down after losing the bug. I told them they were crazy—this kid’s the real deal.

There have been a rash of inquiries and disqualifications. Nine DQ’s at last count, including a couple that seemed very ticky-tacky to me. The stewards are once again taking forever to make their decisions, which is never a good sign. The final race on Friday went at about 8:00 p.m. after inquiries in the final four races. If the foul is obvious, the decision shouldn’t take long. And if the incident is borderline or the angle not clear, leave the result alone. I can’t imagine looking at the video more than a few times to come to the right decision. I think I will buy them copies of the book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. The author explores the power of the trained mind to make split second decisions. Or perhaps I should re-read it myself before starting on Wednesday’s handicap.

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As Trevor Denman said as the gates opened for the second race on Opening Day, the “Polytrack era” is underway at Del Mar. In front of 42,842 over-the-top fans (second largest in track history and largest opening day crowd ever), we got our first look at the future as 3-year-old maiden filly SPECIAL SMOKE got home in a very slow 1:13.95. The track seemed to play fair to front-runners and closers but the final times were nearly three seconds slower than on Del Mar’s old “dirt” track. Times remained similarly slow on Thursday, when four route races produced times three seconds slower than normal and seemed to strongly favor late-runners. First-race winner ZEE TOPPER and longshot FREEDOM CLASS both rallied from last.

Early Impressions of Polytrack: There is much more kickback than I expected, particularly in the sprint races where the faster pace produces more flying “stuff”. A number of horses who raced behind the leaders appeared uncomfortable and threw their heads in the air as the synthetic material flew back at them. The slow times, if the track remains the same, will definitely take getting used to. Can you image the fastest sprinters on the circuit running the Bing Crosby in around 1:11 flat? And in two-turn races, closers seem to have a big edge, at least right now. I will continue to tread lightly, watch and monitor as the meet progresses.

On Wednesday, the meet kicked off with the first of three divisions of the Oceanside Stakes as European import TEN A PENNY won from off the pace in 1:35.2. KNOCKOUT ARTIST outdueled MEDICI CODE to win the 4th race in the same time, and VAQUELIN got a great ride from Victor Espinoza to take the final division in 1:36.3 while bucking a much slower early pace. All three winners looked good and figure to move on in Del Mar’s 3-year-old turf program. Trainer Peter Miller got off to a fast start with two wins, while Espinoza and Corey Nakatani both bagged three riding winners. Nakatani used a similar strategy in both of his main track victories, busting the race open at the top of stretch and daring the competition to catch him. They couldn’t either time.

On Thursday, two more wins for Miller and a pair for Bobby Frankel. Doug O’Neill got his first win since Lava Man (June 30) when dropper SWISS BLEND became the first (and only) horse to go wire-to-wire over Polytrack. The turf races have been dominated by closers so far, although INDIAN ASHTON ran well on the lead before getting nipped at the wire in a 5-furlong dash.

There was one winning ticket in the Pick Six and the $16 ticket immediately raised the red flag for those of us who remember how the “winning” Fix Six ticket was structured at the 2002 Breeders’ Cup. In this case, “singling” the winners of the first four races (including $133 bomber FREEDOM CLASS and $31.60 winner BALLISTIC HEAT), then using four horses in the 7th race and two in the finale. After a somewhat animated dinner conversation with an employee of the tote room, who assured me of the safeguards and race-by-race monitoring that make it virtually impossible for a ticket to be “put together” and entered after the Pick Six has started, and a phone call from a friend of the night manager at Viejas, conspiracy theorists probably can relax. The scoop I have is that the ticket reportedly was purchased by a 72-year-old regular of the Viejas racebook, who cashed out his paper ticket (not purchased online, offshore or over the phone) and walked out of the joint with about $92,000 after taxes.

One conspiracy theory down, one to go. Now, when are we going to stop seeing the last-click odds drop on winning horses who pop the gate and open up three lengths (aka ROAR IN SOLANO in last Friday night’s 6th race from Hollywood Park) turning for home? I’d like to once see that kind of drop on a horse who gets left at the start.

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As I wrote in my last posting, the trainer race was going to get very interesting by Sunday. And with two more winners on closing day, Jeff Mullins was able to tie Doug O’Neill for leading trainer at Hollywood Park. With O’Neill virtually stopping to a walk—no wins since Lava Man on June 30 (a streak of 0-for-26)—Mullins closed furiously, winning with 23 of 66 starters (35%) since June 6.

Mullins got off to a good start when SCOTTSBLUFF re-rallied to win (in 1:07.2) a very tight photo in the opening-race turf stakes, and scored with odds-on favorite NORWAY HOUSE to tie things up after the 6th race. He still had two bullets left with favorites THE FIVE J’S and STORMIN AWAY but both ran poorly. In any event, a terrific accomplishment for Mullins, starting about half as many horses as O’Neill, who did not have a strong meet percentage-wise. However, when Horse of the Meet LAVA MAN won his record-tying third straight Gold Cup, O’Neill really didn’t need to win any other races at the meet. Honorable Mention: Ron Ellis had a terrifically high-percentage meeting and was voted top trainer by the media. He got another win today (in tandem with Jose Valdivia) when DELICATE CAT rallied from last to win a turf sprint.

Michael Baze held off repeated challenges from Joe Talamo to become the youngest leading rider at a HP Spring/Summer meet since Bill Shoemaker. Both riders were outstanding, so here’s to seeing these two guys go at it for many years to come.

Thanks in part to the wagering frenzy created by a four-day Pick 6 carryover, and strong Friday night business, HP established a new record of $11.3 million for daily handle. Congratulations on a strong meeting with good racing. The only lowlight for me was the small field sizes over the past two weeks.

ENTER ANON won again, this time for new trainer Mike Pender. The 4-year-old gelding stepped up into allowance company to win his third straight in dominating fashion…old-timer RUNAWAY GROOM rallied from far back to win the Sunset Handicap going away. The 8-year-old gelding continues to bang out a good living and was ridden to perfection by Alex Solis, who split horses in mid-stretch with a perfectly-timed ride. Solis, who was winning his third straight Sunset, is riding the turf as well as anybody. Perhaps this is becoming his forte.

On a personal note, I rallied from far back early to lead all public handicappers at the meet, edging by Mike Superstein 172-170. After struggling early and trailing by 15 winners in the first month, I went on a 36% streak over the past seven weeks, with my selections showing a flat-bet profit during that time. I’ve led my share of meetings over the past 20 years but I must say this one is the most satisfying.

Early thoughts on Del Mar: With the advent of Polytrack at Del Mar this summer, who knows what to expect? I have no clue how the track will play and I’m not going to pretend I do. For a couple good articles on the subject, check out Jim Quinn’s “Handicapping for Polytrack” (http://www.dmtc.com/season/polytrack-handicapping.php) and Jeff Nahill’s article http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2007/07/15/sports/delmar/22_55_167_14_07.txt in the North County Times.

My advice (and how I will play the races on my Premium Play selections) is to concentrate on turf races during the first week or two. I will be going to school early in the meet, observing and taking notes, trying to find any kind of bias or edge. I can’t imagine any serious player jumping in and playing main-track races aggressively right away. So, let’s take a deep breath, decompress from this meet, and take a low-key approach for the first week or two of Del Mar. Besides, with six-day racing there’s enough work and nightlife to keep us plenty busy.

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A couple of weeks ago it looked like a foregone conclusion that Doug O’Neill would win another training title. After Lava Man’s win in the Gold Cup on June 30, O’Neill held a 26-18 advantage over nearest rival Jeff Mullins, who had gone on a hot streak just to get that close. With O’Neill’s huge stable, which starts about twice as many horses as Mullins’, he would surely roll to another crown. Not so fast. Since that day, O’Neill has not won a single race (17 starters), while Mullins has won four, cutting the margin to 26-22 with three racing days remaining. According to Brad Free of DRF, since June 6, O’Neill has won with 12 of 95 starters (13%), while Mullins has sizzled with 19 wins from 57 starters (33%).

Heading into Friday night’s card, here’s how things stack up between these two: O’Neill sends out favorites JAKE SKATE (5th) and RUDEAMEANIE (6th), as well as comebacker STARLET OF SEATTLE in the 7th. Mullins saddles contenders MI REY (1st) and READY MORE (5th), longshot JAKEDONTKNOW (6th) and second choice KARLEE’S KITTEN (7th). On Saturday, O’Neill sends out two modest threats while Mullins has only one starter. However, things could get very interesting on Sunday, when Mullins is loaded with four strong contenders while O’Neill has much less chance with three starters. If O’Neill doesn’t win one in the next two days, look for things to really tighten up on Sunday.

The battle for leading jockey appeared to be coming down to the wire but Michael Baze may have clinched things yesterday with his riding triple, while rival Joe Talamo had only one. The margin now stands at 69-63 into Friday night, and if Baze holds on he would become the youngest HP Spring/Summer riding champ since Bill Shoemaker in 1950. Whatever the case, these two have put on a magnificent riding show, far distancing themselves from third-place Victor Espinoza (36 winners). Don’t cry for Espinoza, however. He has dominated the stakes races with 13 wins, compared to five for Talamo and four for Baze.

Favorites (35% for the meet) dominated in the last two days, winning 10 of 16 races as field sizes have shrunk up to embarrassing levels lately. In fact, only three superfectas were allowed to be offered on Thursday’s card.

On Wednesday, another glaring example of what’s wrong with current Pick 4 rules when favorite SANDITA scratched in the paddock before the final race, shifting his Pick 4 combinations to the race favorite. When PARADISE PETE went favored and won easily, his payoff dropped from a will-pay of $565 to $141. This horrendous rule supposedly is going to be changed at the next CHRB Pari-Mutuel Committe meeting on July 20, allowing for consolation payoffs similar to Pick 3 rules….it seems that Mullins “second-time-out” has become a huge angle. His FREDDIE RUTH was dazzling after a modest debut, while ‘PETE also romped after a lackluster bow…Rafafel Becerra is unbelievable first off the claim (40%). TRICK A CAT won easily after being re-claimed by Becerra six weeks ago. She now goes to O’Neill…bug boy Tom Foley is just totally overmatched on this circuit. He is unable to rate speed horses and allowed STARTALE to run off to a ridiculous lead before falling apart in the 1 3/8-mile turf opener.

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Sometimes when hitting a bad gambling streak, you wonder if the Racing Gods are against you. Close finishes go the wrong way, you cut out the wrong horse when whittling down trifecta or Pick 4 tickets, questionable rides and/or bad trips cost your horse victory. For the past few weeks I’ve experienced all of the above, but I am beginning to believe that this run of bad luck is perhaps being caused by Karmic Torture. On Saturday, for example, I was alive to the two favorites to cash out the late Pick 4 for either $2,485 or $2,795. Both horses ran well enough, finishing second and third, but not good enough to beat DIXIE CHATTER. Why Karmic Torture? Because I have privately been critical of winning trainer Richard Mandella’s barn, which had been underachieving with exactly three winners (The Tin Man, El Roblar and maiden Slam Slew) at the meet while going down in flames with a number of logical horses. Today, I unloaded on COUNT ORANGE (3-1) with a win bet and daily doubles. After putting a head in front in deep stretch, he somehow got beat by a re-rallying WATCH OVER ME at the wire. Why Karmic Torture? Because I had gone on the “Thoroughbred Los Angeles” radio show with Mike Willman and Kurt Hoover this morning mentioning what a poor meet Santa Anita-based winning trainer Ted West was having over the Cushion Track.

So, for now let’s forget about trainers who are caught with cobra venom, wealthy owners who allegedly go off on track employees trying to do their jobs, and trainers who refuse to work their horses at Hollywood Park (even when preparing for a Grade I race), resulting in said trainer never having won a race over the Cushion Track. I think I’ll keep my big mouth shut and try to go back to cashing some tickets.

After great cards on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was a stinker. With only 64 horses entered before scratches (down to 59 after scratches), it really was an uneventful day. Other than a couple wins by Richard Migliore and Bill Spawr, and a number of very tight finishes, nothing meaningful happened out there. I like the idea proposed by Hoover on the radio this morning. Assuming next year’s Cash Call Mile card is run on Friday night, put the nondescript card in the middle (no early post, thank you), then come back with the American Oaks blockbuster on Sunday.

On Friday night, there was a big on-track crowd with a festive buzz in the air. LADY OF VENICE put in a huge stretch run to take the Cash Call for trainer Patrick Biancone. The winner “slithered” her way outside of traffic before “striking” with a “venemous” stretch kick. Sorry, couldn’t resist. SOMETHINABOUTLAURA continued her remarkable career by taking the A Gleam Handicap over longshot STRONG FAITH. She has now won 15 of 27 starts for earnings of more than $900,000.

On Saturday, Joe Talamo got a hat trick while taking down the first and second Grade I victories of his career, guiding unbeaten NASHOBA’S KEY (for Carla Gaines) through along the rail to beat BALANCE in the Vanity and taking BILO (for Marty Jones) wire-to-wire in the Triple Bend…PANTRY RAID, making her first start on turf for Todd Pletcher, held off VALBENNY in an international field of American Oaks runners…what a day for Clinton Potts, who shipped to Calder for the Summit of Speed and rode BLACK SEVENTEEN and RIVER’S PRAYER to back-to-back front-running victories in $300,000 and $500,000 events. Winner’s share of those two lucrative sprints was close to half a million dollars.

It Pays to Own a Cal-bred: Cal-bred stakes winners from the past eight days: LAVA MAN, SOMETHINABOUTLAURA, NASHOBA’S KEY and RIVER’S PRAYER.

Clutch Score Department: It appeared that Bob Bone had all but wrapped up the two-day $100,000 winner-take-all Firecracker Handicapping Challenge at Hollywood Park, heading into the last race with $52,715 in the bank and a commanding lead. But Texas invader Dennis Tiernan (brother of local mutuel clerk Bert Tiernan) cold decked a $1,000 trifecta, which returned $38,400 and gave him a $740 victory over Bone (who made nearly $4,000 in the race and wound up at $56,610). Maybe my Karmic Torture isn’t so bad after all.

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It was right there in front of us. SALUTE THE SARGE, named after patriotic trainer Nick “Sarge” Hines, got the best of the photo to win the Hollywood Juvenile Championship on July 4th at $15.20. Talk about the hunch bet of all time. Hines, who brings the flag into the winner’s circle with him and whose horses wear red, white and blue blankets, is good friends with winning trainer Eric Guillot. Guillot named the horse for his buddy and the two celebrated together in the winner’s cirlce, with Hines posing in a salute and hamming it up for the cameras. The narrow victory brings me back to the Exciting vs. Great debate that I wrote about after Lava Man’s victory in the Gold Cup on Saturday. The Juvenile was exciting, with just a nose separating ‘SARGE from LEONIDES. But could anyone say it was a great race? With a final time of 1:12 (final 1/4-mile in harness horse time of :26.4, final 1/8th in :13.3), it was frankly a terrible race. Whatever numerical (or visual) rating system one uses, the number will come back very weak.

Michael Baze won three on the card, all in close photo finishes, including the feature race win over his nearest rival Joe Talamo. Watching these two battle down the lane is something you’re going to see for years to come, folks…another ultra impressive win by New Zealand import CROSSING THE LINE. Stretching out to a mile, ‘LINE overcame some traffic trouble to fly home for the victory. Not to dwell too much on these finishing times, but the lightly-raced gelding came the last furlong in about 11 seconds, which is terrific…trainer Dan Hendricks got off the schneid when CARSON’S COPPER (claimed by Peter Miller) won the third…two claims in for SOUL CITY SLEW, who went to Paul Aguirre for $100,000…how about the person who hit Monday’s Pick Six on $2 and $4 tickets? Combined return on the $6 investment was $1,152,128, including a consolation for $2,240 on the “big” ticket. That’s the problem with hitting on a $2 ticket—no consolation payoff. I’ll take that kind of problem any day.

On Thursday, DECLAN’S MOON got back on the winning track, scoring for the first time since March ’05. The former juvenile champion had looked like a shell of his old self in many of the defeats but he looked pretty darn good today…two wins for Talamo and another training win for Jack Van Berg, whose barn has heated up lately. His TEEMAN re-rallied to beat my top choice PROWLING CAT (8-1), which pretty much epitomized my day. My top selection finished second in the last six races on the card.

Cash Call Mile tomorrow night, 11 races on Saturday with a noon post.

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Since I’m banging out another blog posting on my “day off”, it’s safe to assume I was not one of the lucky 13 ticket holders who collected over $576,000 in Monday’s Pick Six.

With the announcement that no one had hit again on Sunday, my first thought was that the pool would reach $10 million the following day. Then I thought about how most tracks around the nation were sensibly closed on Monday and how bettors would only have until the next day to get “fresh money” (instead of the customary two-day break, which would have led to an absolute avalanche of money on Wednesday), I figured the pool might double to the $6-7 million range, threatening the North American record of $7.4 million. But my first reaction was correct—over $7.5 million was bet chasing the $3.2 million carryover, resulting in a record total pool of over $10.8 million. Total handle on the nondescript card went over the $18 million mark, which is astounding given the circumstances.

My $216 ticket given out to Premium Play purchasers managed to isolate $4.20 winner SKIPASLEW in the opening leg. And it only took me three horses to get him! It was down the tubes after that. A couple of seconds, a couple of second choices winning…embarrassingly noncompetitive. The results weren’t easy, that’s for sure. After favorite SKIPASLEW got home in the first leg (and by the way, would it have carried again if longshot TRICKY FLASH FLOOD had held on?), there were four double-digit winners from the next five races, with LT. LORRAINE the only other winning favorite on the card. So, frenzy over. Back to normal tomorrow, with just 10 quiet racing days remaining until the meet ends…unless there are more carryovers on the horizon.

Odds and Ends: On Friday, there was another late equipment change when, as the horses were leaving the paddock, it was announced that 0-for-24 maiden HANDSOME MICHAEL K would be racing without blinkers. He had run without shades a number of times in the past, but could the equipment change have resulted in his much improved second at huge odds?

On Saturday, game win by EPIC POWER, who overcame a whip to the face to win a Cal-bred handicap in the 1st race…hard-knocking GEM PROOF might be the unluckiest horse on the circuit. After a couple tough losses at Santa Anita, he finally broke through with a win at the NW2 allowance level only to be disqualified for coming out and bothering a tiring KEWEN in deep stretch. I couldn’t argue the call because he did cost Kewen a placing but ‘Proof was best…good race in defeat by THE TIN MAN, who couldn’t hold off improving OUT OF CONTROL while spotting that one 10 pounds. They ran 1:46.4 while coming home in under 12 seconds for the final furlong…is it my imagination or is Alex Solis last turning into the stretch an inordinate amount of the time? By winning the Gold Cup, LAVA MAN became the first horse in history to win Grade I races on dirt, turf and synthetic.

Mail Bag: I truly believe track announcer Vic Stauffer has a love and enthusiasm for the game but I’ve watched the replay of the Gold Cup half a dozen times now and I can’t help but be critical of his call. First, he anticipated pacesetter A. P. XCELLENT dropping “back to third” at the top of stretch when he was, at worst, on even terms with looming LAVA MAN. Then as the horses hit the wire, he screamed, “Lava Man, yesssss!” With his voice cracking like an adolescent boy going to his first Sadie Hawkins dance, Stauffer continued, “There’s the original rags to riches [play on Belmont winner's name]…Lava Man did it again by a nose!”

Enthusiastic or over the top? Blog readers and emailers thought the latter. From Anthony: “I see what you mean about Vic S. In the Gold Cup call he actually said ‘A.P. Excellent back to third’ when the horse was still in front!!! Brutal call!!” From Marcus: “LAVA MAN, YEEESSSS! (Cut to tonsils splattered on announcer’s window)”…and those were the nice ones.

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I was thinking all day about what I was going to write about LAVA MAN winning his third consecutive Hollywood Gold Cup. But only in horse racing can a huge story like that get usurped the next day by an even bigger story—a four-day Pick Six carryover (for only the second time in HP history) with over $3.2 million into Monday’s “holiday” card.

After more craziness on Sunday—including $172 winner BRIGHT PREDICTION—no one was able to come close to hitting the Pick Six, despite over $3.4 million being bet into the pool. One trifecta paid $6,600, with superfectas paying $64,599 and $28,792. The Pick 3′s ending in races 6-8 paid $3,233, $2,291, $1,722 and $31,040. And the late Pick paid more than $141,000. Life-changing possibilities but who could string them together properly? Monday’s pool figures to threaten the North American record of $7.3 million set at Santa Anita on Mar. 3, 2004. With much shorter field sizes and every horse player from across the nation in the pool, the Pick 6 almost has to be hit tomorrow.

On Sunday: David Flores rode four winners, including win machine CITRONNADE in the featured Beverly Hills and impressive 2-year-old filly TASHA’S MIRACLE in the opener. Based on the way she broke her maiden, TASHA’S MIRACLE probably would have been the one to beat in yesterday’s Landaluce. She looks like a very serious filly and I’m making her the early favorite for the Del Mar Debutante later this summer…one that got away from Flores was KRIS’ SIS, who had a brutal trip in the 5th. Between that and MOSTACOLLI MORT being disqualifed in the 8th, trainer Julio Canani probably left the track talking to himself.

Exciting vs. Great:

First, let me start by saying I love LAVA MAN. He’s everything you could want in a racehorse—a tenacious, tough, versatile, durable, win machine. Seventeen wins from 40 lifetime starts, dirt and turf, racking up over $5 million in earnings. The most profitable claim in the history of racing, who has been handled superbly by Doug O’Neill and his team. And winning Saturday’s Gold Cup for the third straight year (to match the legendary Native Diver), his 10th win from his last 11 starts in California, is an awesome accomplishment. The race was extremely exciting, with LAVA MAN edging clear of A. P. XCELLENT in the last few jumps and holding off longshot BIG BOOSTER, who was charging up on the outside.

But I hear the word “great” being thrown around a lot. “It was a great race…he’s a great horse.” But was it really a great race, or was it more accurately an exciting race with big-time historical ramifications? And is the old gelding truly a great horse, or more accurately a very good horse who has taken advantage of subpar Southern California competition to rack up win after win?

As a handicapper and one who tries to dispassionately analyze races, my first thought after the initial thrill of a great stretch run was: What a lousy race for a Grade I. Why? Because after an absurdly slow early pace (:48.3, 1:13.1, 1:37.4) weren’t the first two horses supposed to finish out a whole lot better than the final 1/4-mile in :25.2? The final times for sprint races played about par all day long, so it’s unlikely that the track played slow for the only main track route race on the card. Visually I thought the one-two finishers labored through the lane, not looking at all the way Grade I horses are supposed to finish given their soft trips. Flash back to the Preakness or Belmont Stakes this year—that’s the way Grade I horses should finish. By any objective numerical ratings system one uses (Beyer figures, Handicapper’s Report, Sheets), this was a low-rated race. If that sounds cynical to the casual fan, so be it. The name of the handicapping game is properly analyzing what you see and trying to use it to your advantage next time.

Is Lava Man a great horse? This is purely subjective, but to me the answer is no. He might have been a great horse for a three-race stretch in the summer of ’05 when he rattled off wins in the Californian, Gold Cup and ran third in a fast Pacific Classic while getting Beyer ratings of 116, 120 and 112. But his Achilles’ heel will always be the five resounding defeats when shipping out of California and the suspect competition he has faced in many of his biggest victories. Does he compare to the greats we’ve seen in California like Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and John Henry? No, but you sure have to admire him and his accomplishments, all the while wishing you were the one who had dropped that $50,000 claiming slip.

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