The highlight of the Hollywood Park Fall meet is the Turf Festival, unless, of course, you back to 2005 when there was no Turf Festival. We saw a number of good performances and exciting races this year but I thought the victory by PRECIOUS KITTEN in Sunday’s Matriarch stood out as the top performance in the six-race sequence. She got an outstanding ride by Rafael Bejarano (he’s even better than advertised, by the way), who let no-chance longshot Live Life make the lead and was content to sit second, moved up when forced to go near the 1/4-pole, then spurted away at the top of stretch and held WAIT A WHILE safely at bay. She deserved this win, especially since she was carried out and eliminated in the BC Filly & Mare Turf last month at Monmouth. Also on Sunday, DAYTONA made it two straight (and third win in this country) with a front-running score in the Hollywood Derby. He got a very comfortable trip under Mike Smith and had enough left to hold off hard-knocking MEDICI CODE. Although unable to win in four starts when ridden by Alex Solis, his son, Alex Jr., was responsible for putting together the syndicate that brought DAYTONA over from England.

In other Festival races, Todd Pletcher broke his own earnings record and added two more stakes wins for ’07 with 2-year-olds THE LEOPARD (handy winner of the Generous) and SEA CHANTER (Miesque). LANG FIELD beat a subpar Grade I field in the Citation, holding off a slightly unlucky ZANN to win by a neck. And Saturday’s Turf Express was an absolute rodeo, with favorite FAST PARADE drifting out and impeding five horses to his outside in mid-stretch. UNUSUAL SUSPECT and BONFANTE took advantage of rail runs to finish a nose apart, but who knows what would have happened in a cleanly-run race?

NOTES: There were single-ticket winners in the Pick Six on two days last week, including Saturday’s $582,041 bonanza…favorites are winning at slightly over 27% for the meet…super training achievement by Mike Puype, who won three on Friday…Cushion Track played lightning fast over the weekend, with track records set by CURIOUSLY SWEET (1:41.27) on Saturday and JOHNNY EVES (1:14.03) on Sunday…MASSIVE DRAMA was an impressive winner of the Prevue on Thanksgiving Day. Along with COLONEL JOHN, two exciting juvenile colts finally have emerged on the Southern California circuit…how about all the blanket finishes lately? On Friday, seven horses finished within about a half-length in the 6th race, then four were on the line in the 8th. Saturday’s 10th race saw another five-horse cavalry charge…in Wednesday’s 7th, the trifecta came back awfully short considering the prices of the top three: TALKIN TO MOM ROO (bet from 33-1 to 23-1 sometime after the gates opened), WILD DIPLOMAT (15-1) and DAKOTA PADRE (19-1) returned $2,417 in an 11-horse field (with the favorites running out). To show how far out of whack the trifecta was, compare it to the $36,229 superfecta with favorite SOLEMN PROMISE running fourth…using alternate selections on Pick 4 and Pick 6 wagers is always a good idea. I was able to catch Sunday’s late Pick 4 on my Premium Play sheet ($525 return on a $64 ticket) because I used alternate DEVILS AFLEET as a replacement for original top choice AFLEET RULER, who scratched after the sheet had been published.

Finally, word on the street is that Santa Anita will shut down its main track for a week as workers try to fix the drainage problem that has plagued the newly-installed $10 million Cushion Track. I have written about this issue in two previous postings…expect a release from Santa Anita officials on Wednesday morning.

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Since the advent of synthetic surfaces in Southern California last fall, we have been told about the positive effect they are having on racing, especially for the safety and well-being of the horses. The mantra goes like this: less injuries—particularly catastrophic ones—and quicker recovery time after a race or workout, allow horses to run back quicker, which leads to bigger field sizes. Sounds logical, although many believe that, when comparing casualties and injuries from races and morning workouts from the previous year, there has been no decrease in these numbers. In any case, average field size per race has increased over the past year on this circuit. But a closer inspection of the numbers reminds of me of that saying about “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Yes, field size has been up. At the recently concluded Oak Tree meet, average field size was 8.9 starters per race. However, through 10 days of the Hollywood Park fall meet, fields are averaging only 8.07 starters per race, down from ’06 numbers. But which kinds of races are attracting the largest field sizes? If you guessed maiden claiming races, you win the prize. At Oak Tree, there were 54 maiden claiming races from 274 total races run at the meet (20%). Field sizes for those 54 races averaged 10.16 per race, more than one runner per race over the meet average. Subtract the maiden claiming totals and Oak Tree averaged only around 8.6 starters per race. At the current HP meet, there have been 19 maiden claimers from 85 races (22%), averaging 9.16 starters per heat. Subtract those from the HP totals and you’re left with a paltry 7.8 starters in the remaining 66 races. It seems that, unfortunately, the maiden claiming race has become the backbone of the Southern Calfornia product. Doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of synthetic surfaces to me.

Odds and Ends: Here’s another concern about the synthetic surfaces. Are they really going to handle water as well as advertised? We have not had a day of significant rain in the year since Cushion Track debuted at HP last fall. In fact, one day early in the Oak Tree meet workouts were cancelled due to problems caused by less than a half-inch of precipitation. Unless the drought is going to last forever, these tracks are going to be put to the test in the very near future…if you watched Thursday’s races live, then went back to watch the replay show, you might have noticed a big difference in the 6th race call. Watching live, you heard the track announcer bungle the call from the 1/2-mile pole to near the finish, calling YOUR QUOTE in front, rather than her stablemate SNEAKY JACK, who was the actual pacesetter and eventual winner. The call sounded perfect on the replay show, however, thanks to an obvious do-over in studio…in promoting last week’s “spotlight” race, TVG’s voice-over guy pronounced the name of the Aqueduct feature as the “Stewie Vasant” (Stuyvesant). Does anyone edit anything before it goes on the air? Trainer Frank Monteleone had two contenders eased up recently with EDEN SIMONE (4-5) in Friday’s 1st and BRIDLED HONEY (3-1) in Sunday’s 1st. Both were ridden by Victor Espinoza, who is mired in a terrible slump to start the meet…hasn’t TRULY A JUDGE done enough? The 9-year-old gelding has made more than $750,000 for his connections but hasn’t been truly competitive in a race for over two years. Is the 12-time winner, including multiple stakes, going to be run right down the claiming ladder now? Looked like old times when P.Val claimed foul in his very first ride back, a ridiculous claim against Corey Nakatani, who was aboard the runner-up. Some things never change.

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Garrett Gomez has tied Jerry Bailey’s mark of 70 stakes winners in a year and is a cinch to win this year’s Eclipse Award as top jockey. Since returning West, he clearly is the dominant rider on the Southern California circuit. He is in perfect position every time, never makes a mistake, always finds the hole and finishes stronger than any rider in the room (see today’s victories aboard DESERT SEA and HUCKING HOT). Simply put, he towers over the rest of the current colony.

Since coming back on Oct. 28 (after winning two Breeders’ Cup races and being voted the Shoemaker Award as the day’s outstanding rider), Gomez has won with 14 of 44 mounts (32%). He rattled off eight wins from 11 mounts in his first three days at Oak Tree. Of his 14 victories, three each have been for trainers John Sadler and Jack Carava. However, he’s racked up single wins for another eight different trainers (Shulman, Frankel, Canani, Sise, Becerra, Clement, O’Neill and Gallagher). Basically his agent, Ron Anderson, gets him on the best mounts, regardless of which barn. But as handicappers and gamblers, how do we treat him?

Since riding double-digit winners ($12.60 and $10.60) in his first two mounts at Oak Tree, the public has jumped all over the Gomez bandwagon. In 12 subsequent wins (10 favorites), the highest payoff has been $7.40 on HUCKING HOT in today’s stakes. His 14 winners have returned $88 (average win payoff of $6.29), which means a $2 bet on every one of his 44 mounts breaks you exactly even. The moral of the story? Betting on Gomez gets you a flawless ride on a high percentage of winners, usually while on the best horse. Just don’t expect to get rich along the way.

NOTES: Today’s Pick Six returned $210,750 to five winning ticket holders. There were three winning favorites in the sequence, and longshot BUSHWACKER ($24.60) was the only really hard one to come up with. But it would be very interesting to know how many potential winning tickets went down the tubes when favorite ZETTERBERG reared in the gate and was subsequently scratched from the 6th race. Those not using an alternate selection got first-time starter SIGNATURE MOVE, who ran a non-threatening third. Eventual winner WIND’S LEGACY did get knocked down to 5-2 after the scratch (8-1 morning line) but he had been soundly defeated by Zetterberg in their last meeting, meaning most players would have gone looking elsewhere when it came to an alternate. Just shows you, there are lots of ways to get beat in this game. Despite singing the praises of Gomez throughout this posting, he still trails resurgent Tyler Baze by one winner while tied for second with Joe Talamo after four days…the HP Cushion Track is my favorite of the three synthetic surfaces in SoCal. It plays fair to all runners and the times more closely resemble a conventional dirt track (Del Mar’s Polytrack is too slow and Santa Anita’s Cushion Track is too fast)…speaking of Santa Anita, sprinklers were turned on to the main track on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to simulate rainy conditions. Officials and workers seemed to be working on drainage issues in a couple of spots through the stretch. I thought these were “all weather” tracks…trainer J.C. Green sent out of a pair of winners in the last two days. Doubt she’s celebrating at the Derby, however.

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With this year’s Breeders’ Cup in the rear view mirror, here are some belated thoughts: I loved Monmouth Park. Although Del Mar and Saratoga take center stage, the Jersey shore track has to be a blast during the summer. It’s a throwback—like the old Gulfstream and Del Mar tracks—with loads of character.

The weather was a downer, no doubt about it. But looking at the results, can you honestly say that one winner would have been different over a “fast” main track? Now, no question a number of horses did not handle the wet surface, and the turf course was a bog. The fields were spread out a sixteenth of a mile behind the winners. Many runners were finished at the 1/2-mile pole, and top horses like LAWYER RON and ANY GIVEN SATURDAY were done by the far turn in the Classic.

But INDIAN BLESSING and WAR PASS were going to win the juvenile events no matter what kind of surface. MIDNIGHT LUTE and IDIOT PROOF were running 1-2 in the Sprint regardless of conditions. GINGER PUNCH was certainly a deserving winner in the Distaff. And who was going to beat CURLIN in the Classic?

As for the turf, those results might have been more skewed due to the heavy ground. I have my doubts that LAHUDOOD is the best female turfer in the country, but the Mile was very formful (I had winner KIP DEVILLE picked second, and third-place finisher COSMONAUT on top, with runner-up EXCELLENT ART picked third). The one race where you can make a case for weather causing havoc was the Turf, where odds-on Arc winner DYLAN THOMAS obviously couldn’t handle the going. He was under a drive down the backside and never got going at any stage. But could he have have beaten ENGLISH CHANNEL on dry ground? Who knows? Next year we won’t have to worry about wet conditions when the BC returns to Oak Tree at Santa Anita. Fires, maybe, but not rain.

I was on the same flight coming and going with Nick “Sarge” Hines. (No, he didn’t give the pilot a pre-flight pep talk.) He liked two horses on the card, LAHUDOOD ($25.40) and KIP DEVILLE ($18.40). And as the horses left the paddock for the Classic, he proclaimed CURLIN a standout on looks. Pretty good handicapping, I’d say.

NOTES: Garrett Gomez was terrific on BC weekend and has continued that run since returning to California. In his first three days here, Gomez won with eight of his 11 mounts, but “cooled off” to eight for 15 after four losers on Friday. Speaking of jockeys, Pat Valenzuela has resurfaced at Zia Park after getting licensed by the New Mexico racing board. Here’s a stat to ponder: P.Val ranks 18th on the all-time money list, right below Russell Baze, at nearly $150,000,000 in purse earnings. Had he stayed straight and healthy, P.Val no doubt would have doubled his current total, putting him right with all-time leader Jerry Bailey (who, by the way, is excellent on ESPN telecasts. According to people who work with him, Bailey is an absolute perfectionist who strives to get better with every show. Small wonder he retired as the leading money winner.), while racking up at least 8,000 winners by now….Julien Leparoux will be joining the SoCal circuit at the conclusion of the Churchill Downs fall meet, and rumor has it that Rafael Bejarano will be coming West, too. Now we’re talking about three world-class jockeys to join young lions Michael Baze and Joe Talamo, top-notch rider Victor Espinoza and a resurgent Tyler Baze. Should make for an interesting winter.

BALANCE has been retired after her off-the-board finish in the Distaff, as has THE TIN MAN, who fractured a knee coming out of anesthesia following a bone scan on his left ankle.

Tomorrow is Cal Cup Day. Will LAVA MAN snap back to top form against softer competition? My gamble is no. I believe once a top horse starts to show a declining form cycle, there is no coming back. My gut feeling is that his ultra-game nose victory in the HP Gold Cup was his last hurrah. At least that’s the way I’ll play the race.

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