01/12/2014 1:37PM

Midnight Hawk, and Other Notes


It’s only mid-January, and the news Sunday that Kentucky Derby future-book favorite Shared Belief grabbed a quarter is just the latest reminder from a thousand examples that, while this particular incident fortunately appears to be minor, things do happen on the way to the first Saturday in May.

Nevertheless, when something beyond the mundane occurs on the road to the Triple Crown, it should be noted, even if it happens very early on the long march to Louisville, Ky.

It was that way when Shared Belief turned in his brilliant victories in the Hollywood Prevue and CashCall Futurity last year, performances that made him the early Derby favorite even before he turned 3.

And it should be that way for Midnight Hawk. He deserves to be recognized as a potentially important Triple Crown candidate after his very impressive win in Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, even if this Sham was run Jan. 11.

Yes, the Sham precedes the Derby by almost four months, and its list of prior winners does not exactly mirror a roll call of racing’s greats, although Goldencents showed last year that a Sham winner can go on to be an important horse.

In other words, your instincts tell you to be reserved in your impressions of 3-year-old performances at this time of year. But there was just something about Midnight Hawk and his Sham performance that seems to make him an exception.

Truth be told, I was skeptical of Midnight Hawk going into the Sham. Although Midnight Hawk’s going-away score at first asking last month at Betfair Hollywood Park had enough impact to make him the 2-5 favorite over Kristo, who was coming off a two-turn maiden victory that I did like quite a bit, I still had some questions.

Midnight Hawk’s maiden race was run a bit strangely early, with a very slow opening quarter-mile that enabled him to be narrowly in front. When the pace heated up in the second quarter, Midnight Hawk fell back. And I also thought the horses Midnight Hawk ran away from late in his debut were of questionable quality.

Well, Midnight Hawk on Saturday addressed those reservations to complete satisfaction. Kristo, who I still think is a good horse, shot right to the front, as is his wont going long.

But Midnight Hawk went right after him, and these two volleyed through a strong early pace that was considerably faster than the seasoned older horse Blueskiesnrainbows posted in his front-running win in the Grade 2 San Pasqual later on the card – 23.31 seconds, 46.33, and 1:10.50, compared with 23.88, 47.91, and 1:12.20.

Late on the far turn, Midnight Hawk clearly was going better than Kristo, and he took command in upper stretch, though to Kristo’s credit, he fought on gamely. To be fair, it must be noted that the last quarter of the Sham was an uninspiring 25.98, but I can understand that, considering the energy the pace players expended early.

And for some reason, I’m focusing less on how fast Midnight Hawk finished and more on how he finished. For example, Midnight Hawk indicated that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet by drifting in toward the rail in midstretch. And from that point home, Midnight Hawk left a strong impression that as valiant as Kristo was, he was really only toying with him.

My takeaway from the Sham was that if Midnight Hawk is this good now, it could be a real treat to watch him when he gets it all figured out.

Other Saturday thoughts:

No knock on San Pasqual winner Blueskiesnrainbows, who is in career form and, unlike anyone else right now, is at least stepping up and capitalizing on a weak Southern California handicap division. But is there a decent older male out west who can get within hailing distance of Game On Dude?

I always thought Lea had the makings of a nice stakes horse. I just always thought it would happen on turf, the surface on which he won the Grade 3 Commonwealth as a 3-year-old.

But after seeing the way he won Saturday’s Grade 2 Hal’s Hope on the main track at Gulfstream Park in his first start for Bill Mott, maybe Lea will realize his full potential on dirt. Maybe Lea will be Mott’s replacement for Flat Out.

Revolutionary, the winner of the Louisiana Derby and Withers and third in the Kentucky Derby last year, made his much-anticipated first start since finishing fifth in the Belmont Stakes early on Saturday’s Gulfstream card in a conditioned allowance race, but his successful return left me cold.

Yes, Revolutionary was coming off a seven-month layoff. Yes, he prevailed after a slow start, although that’s no excuse because he’s not the best gate horse, and that is just part of the Revolutionary package. And, yes, Revolutionary seems to be the type of horse who is often better than he actually looks.

But Revolutionary was in a long drive to get up late. And how strong a race could this have been if Viramundo, who was beaten for $20,000 and $25,000 claiming tags two and three starts back, finished faster than anybody and was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths?

Saturday’s cancellation at Aqueduct might have been the first I have ever seen due to fog. Look, if jockeys deem the conditions to be unsafe for racing, no one is in a position to argue with them except for other riders, because no one else can possibly have a complete appreciation of the risks jockeys undertake.

That said, I am amazed at how far the bar has dropped over the years when it comes to acceptable reasons to cancel a card.