07/10/2011 12:10PM

Hollywood Gold Cup, Man o' War, and Other Stakes Thoughts

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Impressions of some of Saturday’s big stakes events:

Twirling Candy might still be the most talented older male in the nation. In fact, I believe he is. But how talented Twirling Candy might be is secondary if he can’t get the American classic distance of a mile and a quarter. And right now, Twirling Candy can’t get a mile and a quarter.

Twirling Candy couldn’t get 1 ¼ miles last March as the 1-2 favorite in the Big Cap in his first career attempt at the distance. I’m sure there will be those who will ask, “How do you know that, what with the way Twirling Candy was banged around in the Big Cap stretch run?” Twirling Candy was knocked around in the stretch of the Big Cap. But in my opinion, he was a beaten horse when that all happened.

There was no such ambiguity in the Hollywood Gold Cup. As the even money favorite, Twirling Candy had an absolutely perfect trip stalking Game On Dude’s reasonable pace. But not only was Twirling Candy unable to ever get by Game On Dude, he was outkicked late by First Dude, who got up to narrowly win after being put in an all-out drive above the quarter pole.

Given the way Twirling Candy has handled nine furlongs with such aplomb – in the Californian and Strub, for example – it is surprising that he has been found wanting at 10 furlongs on occasions when he was expected to win. Then again, these things shouldn’t surprise. The world is full of formidable milers who couldn’t win at 1 1/8 miles unless they got part of the trip in a van. The chasm between nine and 10 furlongs is plenty big, too, although at times, it is easy to forget that.

This is not to say that Twirling Candy will never get a mile and a quarter. With racing experience and development, and maybe at the right track against the right field, he might. But for all his talent, and there is a lot of it, Twirling Candy is in a pickle right now. His inability to win the Hollywood Gold Cup relinquished his hold on a very soft handicap division, and it raises the question of whether there is any reason to expect he’ll do any better going 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs in November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Or, for that matter, if Twirling Candy should even be pointed to that race.

As for First Dude, I was one of only many last year to chase this colt repeatedly, only to suffer endless frustration watching him often come close without closing the deal. So I find it slightly amazing that with the Hollywood Gold Cup, First Dude has now won three straight, including two straight stakes (he won the Alysheba at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks Day). It is incredible that something so basic, yet so fundamental, as a change in running style from speed horse to closer could turn First Dude from counterfeit also-ran to frequent winner. Yet that is precisely what’s happened.

Cape Blanco, who won two major Group 1 races in Ireland last year, was much the best winning the Man o’ War at Belmont Park in his U.S. debut. But I have to wonder given how out of form Cape Blanco was in his two most recent outings in Europe if his decisive score Saturday didn’t merely underscore how weak U.S. turf form this year. I also wonder if Gio Ponti, who finished second in his attempt to win a third straight Man o’ War shouldn’t, at this stage of his career, focus solely on mile races. That’s the direction he took last fall, and it worked well for him then.

Speaking of mile races, that’s precisely what Wasted Tears should return to after she chucked it in the stretch of the Modesty Handicap at Arlington. It was well worth taking the shot Saturday to see if Wasted Tears would stretch out to 1 3/16 miles, but now her connections know.

Nice job by St. John’s River to just get up in the Delaware Oaks, rallying from well back into a slow pace. The form of the Kentucky Oaks, in which St. John’s River narrowly missed to Plum Pretty, has certainly held up.

And while on the subject of just getting up, how about Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney at Calder? Sassy Image looked like Life At Ten in the Ladies’ Classic with the way she dropped back and lost complete contact with the Princess Rooney field down the backstretch, and she was still about six lengths behind the next to last horse turning for home. But Sassy Image somehow managed to get there, and she now clearly ranks as the top female sprinter in the country.