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To probably no one’s surprise, there is a carryover into Wednesday’s Hollywood Park Pick Six of more than $555,000. With large fields and incredibly competitive races on Sunday’s Gold Rush card, there was only one winning favorite in the Pick Six sequence (and on the card), one second-choice winner and four double-digit winners. Predictably, no one was able to isolate all six winners, meaning Week 2 kicks off with the best possible scenario for small to mid-size Pick Six players: a huge carryover into what normally would be a small pool.

The 10-race Gold Rush card featured good, competitive racing, with Cal-breds divvying up more than $1.3 million in purses. Although every race on the card was called a stakes, two were maiden races and two were first-level allowance contests. But of the six legitimate stakes, jockey Michael Baze was the star of the day, winning three races worth $550,000 in purses. Baze had a mediocre Santa Anita meet but busted out in a big way here, taking the B. Thoughtful with SPENDITALLBABY (the Barry Abrams/Unusual Heat combo just keeps on rolling); the Khaled with MR. WOLVERINE; and the Snow Chief with longshot maiden HARLENE. In other stakes, TUTTA BELLA wired the Fran’s Valentine field; STELLA MARK pulled off another upset in the Tiznow; and BEL AIR SIZZLE, wheeling back in just three days for Abrams, was moved up by the stewards after the correct disqualification of GAMBLER’S JUSTICE in the Melair. The real victim in that race was favorite FINAL FLING, who almost got put over the rail in mid-stretch, so ‘SIZZLE inherited the win as the third-best filly in the race. Again Abrams and Unusual Heat. When you’re going good…

The disappointment of the day was once again LAVA MAN, who was returning from a near five-month layoff but working splendidly by all accounts. Ending last year with three terrible efforts after his dramatic third straight HP Gold Cup win in June, it seems abundantly clear that Lava Man no longer has what it takes to compete with good Cal-breds, let alone the top echelon of the handicap division. We wrote extensively at the time of his Gold Cup win that it was an exciting but objectively lousy race, which failed to produce a single next-out winner. His Pacific Classic, Oak Tree Mile and Cal Cup Classic efforts were abysmal, producing Beyer speed ratings of 89, 90 and 92, respectively. This time, after a perfect trip pressing a very soft pace, ‘Man was blown away by Mr. Wolverine and could never get by pacesetter EPIC POWER for second.

Decisions to retire obviously are difficult ones (see the scores of athletes who have “retired” only to come back time and time again), but in the case of a thoroughbred, that decision has to be made by his connections, not the horse himself. Hasn’t Lava Man, undoubtedly the greatest claim in racing history with earnings of over $5 million, brought enough money and glory to his connections? What better way to go out than retiring him now and parading him in front of the fans on Gold Cup Day?

NOTES: The very first race of the meet started off with SEISMOMETER getting (correctly) DQ’d after veering in sharply and wiping out the two horses to his inside…DIAMOND DIVA made it two straight in this country, taking the Wilshire Handicap for trainer Jim Cassidy…short fields and formful results produced a whopping $315 Pick Six payoff on Thursday. Favorites won six of the eight races on the card…Friday night’s announced attendance was 10,212. There was a definite buzz in the air as SKY CAPE stormed home to win the featured Harry Henson…once again, Friday night lights produced a P6 carryover into Saturday…SURF CAT won his second Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, with Alex Solis up. ‘CAT is one of the few mounts Solis has retained for Headley since the rider’s blow up at The Derby Restaurant on George Woolf Award day…I like that HP is showing replays of historical races and horses during its 70th anniversary season.

Finally, the Kentucky Oaks post position draw was held today and with EIGHT BELLES drawing the extreme outside, it looks like a cinch that she will also be entered, and most likely start, in the Derby. What again must be addressed for next year’s Derby is the need for also-eligibles in case of late scratches. Why not just draw 24 (four also-eligibles) and allow a horse or two to scratch into the field in case of late defections? After watching BIG BROWN’s races on tape again yesterday, it’s obvious that he is the most talented horse in the race. He showed he was something special in his first start at Saratoga, debuting in a turf route and destroying the competition with a devastating turn of foot in the final furlong. He’s never been in a dog fight, true, but that’s because there might not be anything out there able to give him a fight. If he runs his race (hey it’s the Derby, there are no cinches), it’s all over. COLONEL JOHN for second, with GAYEGO, Z HUMOR, SMOOTH AIR and DENIS OF CORK to fight out the trifecta/superfecta spots. Readers in the Reno/Tahoe area, please join handicapper Steve Fierro and myself at the Grand Sierra Resort at 6:30 Friday night for a free Derby handicapping seminar. Perhaps we can get lucky again like in ’06, giving out the trifecta in Barbaro’s year.

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Mercifully, the marathon Santa Anita meet is over. Not that I have anything against Santa Anita. It’s one of the great sports venues in the world, run by good people, with quality racing. But racing nearly four months in the same place is just too much for me. It’s human nature to get stagnant, going to the same place, seeing the same people, carrying out the same routine every day. We’ve written time and time again about too much racing on a year-round calendar, but there almost needs to be a one-week intermission during this meeting. Now one could say we got that and more with the 11 cancellation days, but not really. Entries continued to be drawn almost every day during that time, with constant uncertaintly and many (if not most) cancellations announced the morning of the cancelled card. It’s not like horsemen, fans or handicappers ever got a chance to take a scheduled break and refresh. In fact, by adding three extra Wednesday cards, it actually added to everyone’s workload, essentially turning an already ponderous 85-day meet into 88 days.

The early part of the meet could not gain momentum but things picked up in the last month. Santa Anita Derby Day drew over 50,000 on-track fans. The last couple of weekends saw lively on-track attendance and good racing, although for the meet attendance was down 5% on-track and much worse at simulcast sites. On-track handle decreased 7% on track and 13% at simulcast sites, but showed an overall increase of 2% due to strong increases in Account Deposit Wagering, which was opened up to more ADW providers this season.

Highlights of the meet included the emergence of Rafael Bejarano as the leading rider, overtaking absent Garrett Gomez on the final day of the meet; Tyler Baze reestablishing his career with a strong third-place finish in the standings; Mike Mitchell winning the SA training title while taking down his second straight San Juan Capistrano with BIG BOOSTER (only 12 more to catch Charlie Whittingham); Carla Gaines enjoying a tremendous meet, racking up six stakes races and an incredible 11-for-15 win streak late in the meet; COLONEL JOHN storming home to win the SA Derby in the most exciting big race of the meet; and EVER A FRIEND turning in the most powerful performance of the season when destroying the Kilroe Mile field; two Corvettes given away to single-ticket Pick Six winners purchased on track; the first-ever $1 million ringer in the St. Pat’s horseshoe pitch; and the amazing sire Unusual Heat, whose progeny won an incredible 27 races during the meet.

Lowlights obviously included the 11 cancelled race dates; three makeup Wednesdays; and Monday racing, which is a total dud—zero atmosphere and totally anti-climactic after two good weekend days. Here’s my vote for going back to the regular Wednesday through Sunday schedule for next year. I was ambivalent in the beginning, feeling good about the fact that this year’s schedule would eliminate six-day race weeks (well, so much for that) but I’ll live with six day weeks in order to go back to the old calendar. And one final, pathetic lowlight. Patrick Valenzuela, who rode here on opening day, lost his provisional license on Dec. 28 after a DUI arrest. Worse, P.Val failed to appear in a pre-trial hearing, leading to an arrest warrant being issued on Mar. 26. He did finally appear in court on Thursday, three weeks after the warrant was issued. What a waste.

As for the status of Santa Anita’s main track going forward, there are three options, with a decision to be made in the next two weeks: keep the current Cushion Track/Pro-Ride concoction that worked well for the last 2 1/2 months; tear out the current surface and replace it with another synthetic; or go back to a traditional dirt track. In a meeting with 10 local trainers, track owner Frank Stronach told Larry Stewart of the L. A. Times that most of the trainers favored synthetic. “I personally prefer dirt, but the majority of horsemen I met with like synthetic. So I figure if we are this far into it, we should give a synthetic track another year or two, then make a change if we need to,” said Stronach.

But the current synthetic version, while seeming to be very safe on horses’ legs, is not without health concerns. We’ve written about the strong odor emitted by the track since chemicals were added during renovation in early February. The gate crew has gone to wearing surgical masks, also worn by jockey Corey Nakatani in post parade a couple of weeks back. Horn blower Jay Cohen, in perhaps not the best career move ever, told Art Wilson of the LANG newspapers, “I hate the stuff. It smells like kerosene. It stinks. I hate smelling it, but that’s just my opinion. If it’s safer for the horses, that’s the main thing.”

In one of the great behind-the-scenes meetings I’ve ever witnessed (watching from the press box), Stronach and track president Ron Charles went trackside following Saturday’s races to walk on and inspect the track. They were soon joined by trainer Bruce Headley, who is passionately pro-dirt, then later by Tapeta proprietor (and former trainer) Michael Dickinson. Dickinson, whose synthetic surface is currently used at Golden Gate (another Magna track), had made a lap around the track and returned to put on an over-the-top show of kicking the material off his shoes, then spending what seemed like an eternity scraping the stuff off his soles. Animated and with arms waving, Dickinson held his hands two feet apart, then narrowed the margin down to about six inches, apparently indicating to his audience that he believed the track was uneven in some areas. As one press box onlooker noted, “Headley looked at him like he [Dickinson] was a Martian.” It all made for great theater, with Dickinson giving an obvious sales pitch for the track to switch to his Tapeta.

NOTES: Trainer Walther Solis had a great meet with his 2-year-olds, winning five of the 2-furlong dashes…Saturday’s results were so tough that a Pick Six carryover was announced with two races still to be run. No one even had five winners that day…the track offered up a $200,000 guarantee on that day’s Super High 5 but wagering didn’t reach that amount, meaning SA had to make up the difference…in Sunday’s 7th race, Nakatani stood up a few jumps before the wire and blew second when riding MODIFICIATION. He told the stewards that the filly felt “funny” in the final strides, which is why he pulled up early. Modification was checked by the track vet after the race, with no obvious signs of lameness, and will be examined again. If she shows a problem, the filly will be placed on the vet’s list. If she checks out healthy, then Nakatani should be given a hefty fine and/or suspension for his lack of effort…congratulations to Bob Mieszerski for winning this year’s Allan Malamud handicapping contest, sponsored by the track. He blew me away in the final weeks and will receive a $3,000 check, half of which will be donated in his name to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation…Ray Nelson won the money title (showing an incredible 12% flat-bet profit over the course of 698 races), and half of his award will be donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Finally, I know it’s old news now, but GAYEGO was impressive in winning the Arkansas Derby and PYRO laid an egg in the Blue Grass. I still haven’t changed my Derby opinion: 1. Big Brown 2. Colonel John 3. Pyro

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Heading into this weekend’s final major prep races—the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes—the Derby picture seems crystal clear to me. Unless there is a crazy “off” track or something completely flukey happens, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner will be one of the following three horses: BIG BROWN, COLONEL JOHN or PYRO. Period, end of discussion. All three are outstanding horses—talented, consistent and in good hands. Like a phrase from one of Trevor Denman’s calls, “It will take something totally unforeseen” for one of these three not to win on May 3.

We’ve written about Big Brown’s tour de force in the Florida Derby, and Pyro, who runs in the Blue Grass, has been scintillating in his two wins this year. Now add Colonel John to the mix. The Eoin Harty-trained son of Tiznow overcame some traffic trouble on the far turn, then got out at the top of the lane and powered home to win the Santa Anita Derby in 1:48. He made up about three lengths in the final 1/8th, meaning he ran his final furlong in about 12 seconds, which is outstanding. He galloped out strongly past the wire, suggesting he will adore the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance. I’m not saying these colts will run 1-2-3 at Churchill, but I will feel very comfortable keying my exotic bets around them, confident that one of them will win and at least one of the others will hit the board.

NOTES: Last Saturday was one of those days we like to refer to as a “Sensory Overload Saturday”. The day was loaded with 14 graded stakes from around the country, including five Grade I’s and three Derby preps. Here’s a recap, starting with the other two Derby preps: the Wood Memorial was ugly, with the leaders staggering home like drunken sailors. TALE OF EKATI finally got to the wire ahead of WAR PASS, who appeared to be cruising on the far turn, then took an awkward step when changing leads and struggled through the lane. Can’t like any of these heading to Churchill…the Illinois Derby was meaningless, with RECAPTURETHEGLORY going wire-to-wire from the rail in a race where no one changed position. Previously unbeaten DENIS OF CORK was terrible, never firing at all. Scratch these seven from consideration…at Oaklawn, ZENYATTA remained unbeaten, rallying strongly from far back to crush last year’s Eclipse Award-winning mare GINGER PUNCH in the Apple Blossom. The huge daughter of Street Cry got a late start to her career but she’s simply a monster. TIAGO completed a huge day for the Moss-Shirreffs-Smith team when he outgamed HEATSEEKER an hour later in the Oaklawn Handicap, a race which certainly flatters the Big Cap…at Keeneland, the big matchup between COUNTRY STAR and PROUD HOPE fizzled when neither fired and longshot LITTLE BELLE took the Ashland. I’m starting to think nothing that happens over the Keeneland Polytrack matters…on the local front, trainer Carla Gaines is in the midst of an incredible run, winning with 11 of her last 15 starters (including six in a row at one point). Gaines sent out full-sisters TIZ ELEMENTAL and TIZ A BLEND to win back-to-back stakes on Sunday…for the third straight year, Santa Anita drew over 50,000 for its Derby day card.

Finally, we’ve harped on this before but nothing ever seems to change. On a day like last Saturday, when fan interest is at its peak and gamblers want to wager on (and WATCH) the biggest races, we once again stood by helplessly as the horses loaded simultaneously for the Wood and Ashland, both races starting at nearly identical times. Impossible to watch both at the same time, fans were forced to choose between the two. If the NTRA would do this one small thing, racing would be so much better off: mandate post times, particularly for major races, so fans/gamblers have a chance to enjoy the biggest events…it is such a simple concept but apparently too difficult to grasp for those in charge.

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Horse or human, it’s hard to imagine either having better days than Curlin or Richard Dutrow had last Saturday. Of course CURLIN dominated his competition and earned the title Best Horse in the World in winning the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba racetrack, while trainer Richard Dutrow won two of the undercard races in Dubai and the Florida Derby with freakish BIG BROWN.

First about Curlin. After a remarkable 3-year-old campaign that culminated in Horse of the Year honors, he was shipped to Dubai early in order to run in a Feb. 2 prep race over the desert course. He hardly broke a gallop that day and was tuned up perfectly by trainer Steve Asmussen (and assistant Scott Blasi) for the Big One. He stalked from his outside post and burst away when set down by Robby Albarado after the field straightened away at the top of the stretch. The winning margin was a record 7 3/4 lengths while winning in a time of 2:00.15, third-fastest of 13 World Cups. If Curlin isn’t a great horse already, he’s getting very close. He will join the pantheon of greats if he can come back home and have a dominating second half of the year, especially after the long and grueling trip to the Mideast.

Now about Dutrow. Has any trainer in history ever had a better day? First a win by DIAMOND STRIPES in the $1 million Godolphin Mile, followed 75 minutes later by BENNY THE BULL running down IDIOT PROOF in the $2 million Golden Shaheen sprint. As if that wasn’t enough, BIG BROWN ran to the hype (or shut up the skeptics, depending on how you look at it) with his tour de force in the $1 million Florida Derby. Drawn in the 12-hole, with only two previous starts under his belt (including an off-the-turf allowance win against four overmatched foes 24 days earlier), ‘BROWN was the wise guys’ “bet against” horse of the year. After a clean break and some early hustling from Kent Desormeaux, ‘BROWN was in the 2-path before hitting the backstretch and simply toyed with the field, winning off by five lengths in 1:48.16, just .37 off the track record. So, in a five-hour span, Dutrow-trained horses took down $4 million in purses. (I always like to do the math in these situations: let’s see, assuming the winners’ share was 60%, and the trainer gets 5% of that, Dutrow grossed a cool $240,000 on the day.)

As for the Kentucky Derby in four weeks? Unless COLONEL JOHN or EL GATO MALO come up with huge efforts in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby (Georgie Boy is out with a muscle pull if you hadn’t heard), this might be the coldest two-horse Derby in memory. Big Brown or Pyro, Pyro or Big Brown…no one else comes close.

NOTES: Wrapping up Dubai: another tough beat for California-bred IDIOT PROOF, who ran a huge race but was run down by the ‘BULL in the late stages, reminiscent of his runner-up try to MIDNIGHT LUTE in the BC Sprint…whose idea was it to put SPRING HOUSE on the lead in the Sheema Classic? After finally learning to relax for trainer Julio Canani and coming off a sharp win in the San Luis Obispo at SA, ‘HOUSE inexplicably was the Sheema pacesetter. Who knows how he would have fared against this tough field, but he had no chance given the strategy.

I like the recently approved CHRB rule change that protects a horse returning from a 180-day layoff or more (and returning for a claiming price equal to or higher than its last race) from being claimed. Any owner/trainer that has turned out a horse, shown the patience and paid the bills, deserves “claim free” status in that first race back…the board also approved a rule that would fine trainers $1,000 or the scratch of a horse that has not been properly reported as a first-time gelding. We started pushing for that rule months ago, so it’s nice to see it finally happen. Now if we can just get proportional payoffs for dead-heats in Pick 4 and Pick 6 races, and consolation payoffs (Pick 4) in the event of a scratched horse, all would be right in the parimutuel world. Oh, did I mention a stop to the late odds drops that continue to erode the confidence of bettors?

Finally, it looks like The Derby restaurant in Arcadia has replaced Madison Square Garden as the home for championship-caliber fights. Months ago we reported on trainer Jennie Green’s table-turning tirade at the upscale restaurant. Last Sunday night, jockey Alex Solis apparently followed suit with some unseemly anctics, including reportedly breaking a window of his wife’s car. Solis took off his two mounts on Monday due to “illness” but was plenty healthy enough to participate in an HRTV segment following the races which included, among other topics, Solis toasting and promoting his new wine. Why do I have a feeling the vino may have had something to do with the previous night’s dustup?

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