02/23/2013 8:00PM

First Impressions on Saturday's Stakes at Gulfstream and Fair Grounds

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Hello from sunny, warm Gulfstream Park, where I offer some thoughts on the Saturday’s stakes that were just run both here and at Fair Grounds:

As a person who liked Orb in the Fountain of Youth, I still kind of like him after he got up to beat Violence. But I like Violence a lot more Saturday night than I did at any time before.

For me, Violence was one lucky horse last year when he won all three of his starts. He wasn’t anywhere near the best horse when he won his debut. Orb was, by many, many lengths. Violence could have (and I think should have) been disqualified when he won the Nashua for racking up three horses to his inside in the stretch, and he got the sweetest trip a horse could ask for when he won the CashCall Futurity.

But Violence showed me more in his first career defeat Saturday than he did in any of his wins last year. He was, I think, way too close to a very strong early pace, and he fought back gamely late after Orb overtook him, although Orb does have a tendency to gear down after getting the lead. Violence should get a ton out of this race and improve big time.

As for Orb, he improved like I thought he might, but the slow fourth quarter mile in the Fountain of Youth of 26.52 certainly aided his rally. Then again, Orb has now won three straight, and I’m convinced there is more to him.

Live Lively’s mild upset of Dreaming of Julia in the Davona Dale was a matter of Pace 101. Live Lively, the best horse trainer Mark Hennig has had in quite a while, was up in both class and distance. She also came into the Davona Dale off a top fig, blowout score, and figured to be totally loose on the lead Saturday. She was, and she handled Dreaming of Julia.

Dreaming of Julia, meanwhile was coming off a Breeders’ Cup layoff and had the dirty job of trying to keep Live Lively honest on the early lead. So under the circumstances, she ran well in defeat. Still, I’ve got a nagging feeling about her. I know Dreaming of Julia has every license to improve after this seasonal bow, and she’s by A.P. Indy, and is long and rangy in appearance, which would shout distance ability. But Dreaming of Julia is out of Dream Rush, who was a top class race horse, and also a stone cold sprinter. Dreaming of Julia is also 3 for 3 around one turn, and now 0 for 2 around two turns, albeit with extenuating circumstances. Still, I wonder if she might not be at her very best as a one turn horse.

Data Link was far better winning the Canadian Turf than his one length win margin or a cursory first look at the race might suggest, and is really a high class turf miler. Data Link and Orb also combined for a natural stakes double for the owner-trainer combination of Stuart Janney and Shug McGaughey.

Sorry, I couldn’t have bet Ive Struck a Nerve with counterfeit money in the Risen Star. In fact, his price of 135-1 seemed to be exactly right. And how’s this for a sobering thought: By most guesstimations, the 50 points towards Kentucky Derby eligibility that Ive Struck a Nerve earned by upsetting the Risen Star (Orb also earned 50 points) likely guarantees him a spot in the Derby.

I can’t be terribly enthused about anyone who finished behind Ive Struck a Nerve Saturday with the possible – strong emphasis on only possible – exception of Normandy Invasion. Yes, I was a Normandy Invasion fan going in, and I can’t be pleased with his fifth place finish. But at least he was coming off a layoff, had a bad start and finished with some interest. Normandy Invasion is poised to take a big step forward next time, but he’ll have to if he is to be a truly legit Derby contender.

Yes, I know Unlimited Budget had a great setup in the Rachel Alexandra thanks to a runoff pacesetter who collapsed. I still liked her clear cut score quite a bit, especially since it was her return from a three month rest.

I was wrong about Mark Valeski. I wasn’t crazy about him in the Mineshaft given how he disappointed at odds-on in his recent comeback. But Mark Valeski was very good Saturday, and I mean good enough to start at least thinking about him as significant player in the handicap division.