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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.

To View Free Samples of Premium Plays from past two weeks, click on the links below: Mar. 6Â Â Mar. 7Â Â Mar. 8Â Â Mar. 9Â Â Mar. 10Â Â Mar. 13Â Â Mar. 14Â Â Mar. 15

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