I am out of town this week—Vegas and Arizona.

Will be home late Wednesday night and will catch up on the blog when I return.

In the meantime, good luck on horses and hoops.

By the way, I love Louisville (-2) over Tennessee on Thursday. I will stick with West Virginia (-1) vs. Xavier, and would take a small shot with Michigan St. (+5) against Memphis on Friday.

Released on last Saturday’s Thoroughbred Los Angeles radio show: West Virginia and Xavier, so I’m two-for-two so far this tournament.

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With three big Derby preps from around the country, today was supposed to give us a clearer picture of this year’s Triple Crown contenders. Would juvenile champion WAR PASS continue his dominance and toy with six overmatched foes in the Tampa Bay Derby? Would Z FORTUNE, second to Pyro in their last meeting, justify his odds-on price in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park? And how would three talented sprinters fare as they stretched out around two turns in the San Felipe at Santa Anita?

First, WAR PASS was a giant bust, fading to last after a compromising trip at Tampa. After getting pinched at the start, the Nick Zito-trained speedball was forced to sit behind horses for the first time and clearly resented it. He pulled behind the leaders while 3-wide on the first turn, had to be asked hard on far turn, then was completely spent by the 1/4-pole. There was some post-race noise about him having a fever or being less than 100%. If true, then why did he run? If not true, he was exposed as a need-the-lead type who won’t run his race unless he can control proceedings up front. Z FORTUNE wasn’t a whole lot better in Arkansas. Mid-pack while racing wide from his outside post, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt tried to rally 4-wide on the far turn but came up empty in the lane—another who was exposed as a less than top-flight colt. The Rebel winner was Cal-bred SIERRA SUNSET, conditioned by Bay Area trainer Jeff Bonde. The best of the three races came at Santa Anita where GEORGIE BOY overcame a challenging trip to storm home and defeat GAYEGO and BOB BLACK JACK, both of whom were making their first starts routing after showing excellent ability in sprints. The pace was creepy-crawly (:24.1, :48.3, 1:13) as ‘GEORGIE sat behind the other two, had to wait for room on the far turn, bulled his way out at the head of the stretch, ducked in at mid-stretch, then stormed home outside to win going away under Michael Baze, who was filling in for the injured Rafael Bejarano. He ran his final 1/16th in under six seconds and left little doubt he can get a distance. My only knock on his performance was that he didn’t change leads until after the finish but, as Gary Stevens suggested on HRTV, perhaps he was moving too fast to change leads at that point. Had Baze stuck him left handed with the whip instead of staying with right-handed urging, perhaps he would have switched leads sooner. As for the runners-up, they’ll never get softer trips than today.

NOTES: Bejarano, who went down in a freakish incident in Thursday’s finale, will be out 2-4 weeks with two cracked vertebrae. His mount, who was being eased after dropping back suddenly, collapsed of an apparent heart attack just inside the 1/8th-pole, throwing Bejarano head first into the ground. The 25-year-old rider had been on a tear, winning 12 races in four days to take a 60-51 lead over Garrett Gomez in the jockey standings…for the first time ever, someone threw a ringer today in Santa Anita’s annual St. Patrick’s (a couple of days early) horseshoe pitch, collecting a cool million. Let’s hope SA bought an insurance policy on the contest, but who knows the way this meet has gone for the track…a downpour hit right before Saturday’s finale, complete with hail, thunder and lightning. Blame it on global warming, everyone else does. (Side note to Al Gore: please let us know when this global warming deal is going to kick in. It’s been one of the harshest winters—all over the world—in memory.)…the bridgejumpers plunged again when War Pass went down the tubes. Show prices were $25, $27 and $76 on the top three…last weekend at SA: NASHOBA’S KEY got back on the winning track when reuniting with Gomez and switching back to synthetic, taking the Santa Margarita in fine style…MONZANTE looked like a monster in winning a small stakes. I’ll make him the early favorite for this year’s Hollywood Gold Cup…ARIEGE switched from turf to take the SA Oaks as Frankel’s third stringer.

Hoops and Horses: It’s that time of the year again, with March Madness starting next week. Have you ever noticed the link between basketball people and horse racing? The list of past and present college coaches who love horse racing could fill a room. And with horse people attracted to basketball? I went to the first night of the Pac 10 tournament at Staples Center and ran into a track announcer, a bloodstock agent, a clocker, a jock’s agent, two prominent owners and a couple racing officials. But thanks to my buddy Brian Ferguson, we trumped them all with awesome courtside seats. Doesn’t get any better than that.

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You would think that after all the trouble with its synthetic track and 11 racing days cancelled, Santa Anita would be due for a little bit of luck. That after gorgeous weather all week leading up to Saturday’s Big Cap, we wouldn’t wake up to a cold, dreary and drizzly day for one of the track’s two marquee days. But that’s exactly what happened, as if The Man Upstairs is not going to cut any slack to The Great Race Place this season as it suffers through one setback after another. The bright side is that 41,377 turned out anyway and witnessed an excellent 11-race card that included four stakes races. With a maximum of 14 horses going, this year’s Big Cap was one of the better gambling races in its long history. MONTEREY JAZZ was sent off as the 7-2 favorite but four others were listed between 5-1 and 7-1, the price on eventual winner HEATSEEKER. Add a couple of 10-1 shots and an 11-1 shot, and the top eight betting choices were not all that far apart in the wagering. After ‘JAZZ took hold of the bit and ran off to a huge 12-length lead after six furlongs, it was just a matter of which late-runner was going to win. HEATSEEKER got the jump on GO BETWEEN and held sway by a diminishing 3/4-length margin, with troubled CHAMPS ELYSEES a fast-closing third. After the top three, you can have everyone else in the race (although ‘JAZZ figures to come back and fight another day). TIAGO, plodder. AWESOME GEM, plodder. GREAT HUNTER, not the same horse. MEDICI CODE, turf horse. CELTIC DREAMIN, tossed in the first dull race of his career.

As for HEATSEEKER, he had been showing up lately but I wasn’t a convert. I couldn’t get out of my mind the horse whose only win in his first six U.S. starts for Bobby Frankel was via disqualification. Transferred to Jerry Hollendorfer after Del Mar, ‘SEEKER pulled off a 30-1 upset in the Native Diver at Hollywood Park, came up a head short in the San Antonio in his most recent start and had trained well into the Big Cap. He obviously was excelling at nine furlongs, so logic should have told me that he would love the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap distance. But I let past prejudice overrule current form—just another handicapping lesson along the way. And what a job by Hollendorfer, who can no longer be classified only as the King of Northern California. He has been a high-percentage performer since getting serious with his SoCal stock over the past couple of years, and not too many guys have moved up a horse on Frankel over the years.

The Big Cap was a good, competitive race but the perfomance of the day belonged to EVER A FRIEND, who turned in a jaw-dropping effort when destroying his opponents by nearly four lengths in the Kilroe Mile. Claimed by Mike Mitchell two races back for $62,500, ‘FRIEND has won both starts for his new connections and looks like a major player in the turf division. COLONEL JOHN and EL GATO MALO put on a good show in the Sham, with ‘JOHN handing ‘MALO the first defeat of his four-race career. Stalking a slow pace while getting a very soft trip, ‘JOHN was supposed to win given the trip but the runner-up lost nothing in defeat. Both figure to move on to the Santa Anita Derby.

NOTES: CURLIN made a successful return to the races, breezing home against outclassed rivals while getting a feel for the Nad al Sheba course in Dubai. He looks every bit the part of “best horse in the world”…Ral Ayers, assistant to suspended trainer Jeff Mullins, got on a roll this week, winning five races from Friday through Monday…speed has been holding well on turf, particularly in two-turn races…when favorite LOTACAT acted up in the gate and had to be scratched from Saturday’s final race, darkness had almost set in. With only a two-minute delay and the remaining horses not even unloaded from the gate, the quick takeoff caught everyone by surprise, including the television department and announcer Trevor Denman. There was still a graphic on the TV screen when the gates opened, causing viewers to miss the first couple seconds of the race. It also hurt the track’s bottom line, particularly in the Super High Five, where about $80,000 of the approximately $110,000 pool was tied up to the favorite and had to be refunded…there have been 17 Pick Six carryovers through 43 days of racing, with favorites winning at only a 25% clip…Chantal Sutherland is riding well but I’ve heard a number of people say that she would be a top-10 rider if she stayed on this circuit year-round. Really? Would you take her over any of the current top 10? Bejarano, Gomez, Flores, Tyler and Michael Baze, Solis, Garcia, Rosario, Talamo, Espinoza? Not to mention returning Nakatani, improving Quinonez, journeymen Gryder, Court, Smith, Valdivia, Migliore, Pedroza or even underrated Delgadillo? I sure wouldn’t. She’s a nice, solid rider who doesn’t make many mistakes and stays out of a horse’s way through the stretch run. But hardly a top-10 rider on this ultra-competitive circuit.Â

Disturbing Trend Department: When UNUSUAL JAIL won Thursday’s 7th race, the red flag went up. Claimed away from Brian Koriner by Jorge Periban (who was also listed as owner while winning a two-way shake) for $25,000 on Dec. 22, ‘JAIL made his next start up north for a different trainer, George Papaprodromou (reportedly good friends with Koriner). Adding to the shadiness, the new owner, Julie Berta, is one of Koriner’s clients. In another case of musical trainers, C R CAPER, who finished third in Saturday’s 5th race, was claimed by trainer Mike Puype for owner Bob Bone on Oct. 10 at Oak Tree. However, he somehow found himself back in original trainer Wesley Ward’s barn for his next start. I don’t know the back stories, so maybe these two examples are completely legitimate. But it seems worthwhile for the stewards to take a look—we don’t need any more cases like the one where Gus Headley claimed a horse off his father Bruce and we were supposed to believe there was no collusion between the two.

Finally, it was reported that Magna Entertainment Corp., the largest owner and operator of racetracks in North America (including SA), lost $113 million last year, running its total to over $500 million in losses since starting up in 1998. The company is over $500 million in debt and its stock trades at under $1 per share. I have no idea how the company will get out from under this debt. But everyday when I leave the track, I get a stark reminder of one costly idea, the brainchild of owner Frank Stronach. It’s the empty Horse Wizard lounge, which cost around a million bucks to build but generated pennies on the dollar and now sits empty, cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. Grim, to say the least.

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