06/05/2011 3:33PM

Spin Doctor


It can be argued that Twirling Candy is not the best older horse in North America. I am open to alternative suggestions. You like Tizway? Fine, it was a heckuva Met Mile. Giant Oak's still got a few fans, but that Donn is fading fast. Choose a 'Dude' if you like -- First or Game on -- but don't bet the grocery dough. How about Tackleberry? Apart? Regal Ransom? Choose one of them and you might as well line up behind Awesome Gem, the George Blanda of the division, who is still making his presence felt when the spirit moves, even at the ripe old age of eight.

Of 2011's top 20 money-winners through the first weekend of June, exactly four are older horses who run on the dirt. Most of the rest are 3-year-olds -- 13 of them in fact -- who have been feeding at what amounts to a bottomless trough for the division until the tap is turned off next Saturday afternoon following the Belmont Stakes. So far this year, the biggest purse for the older division was offered in West Virginia (congrats Duke of Mischief). Talk about equal work for equal pay.

Even after his win in the Californian on Saturday at Hollywood Park, Twirling Candy doesn't crack the top 50 on the money list. He has started exactly three times in 2011 and won twice, and it was not until the Californian that he had won a race open to horses outside his age division. So okay, with so much left to prove, at least in the conventional sense, it can be argued that Twirling Candy is not the best older horse in North America.

But he is, without a doubt, the most entertaining.

After Twirling Candy's frantic experience in the Santa Anita Handicap -- some of it self-inflicted -- John Sadler removed Twirling Candy's black blinkers for the Californian (presumably whispering in the big boy's ear it would be okay) and sent him postward Saturday in the hopes that Joel Rosario could find a rhythm other than "freak out." What Sadler got was the sight of Twirling Candy going from third on the rail entering the clubhouse turn to last of a closely clustered seven down the backstretch, racing between the grays Honour the Deputy and Spurrier with his head high and mouth wide open, as if he were screaming at a neighbor over the backyard fence.

Turning into the stretch, Rosario and Twirling Candy tipped outward, moved inside Honour the Deputy, and went past a whipped and driven Setsuko with alarming ease. Through the final sixteenth of a mile, during which Twirling Candy put what daylight he needed between himself and the field, his rider sat chilly, asking for nothing more. The Californian was won "in hand," which translates well into any language.

Except, perhaps, into the lingua franca of the modern sport, which is dominated by figures and clocks and handicappers who have the discipline to distrust their eyes and believe instead in their proven numbers. Twirling Candy stopped the Californian's timer in 1:50 flat, which was happily hooted as the slowest time since they started running the race once around Hollywood's 9-furlong oval in 1987. Twirling Candy's Beyer will probably come in somewhere around the mid-40s -- I'm just guessing here, don't hold me to it -- and the colt is embarrassed, to be sure, especially after shading 1:20 for 7 furlongs in the Malibu at Santa Anita in late December. He knows he can run faster and promises to try harder next time.

Next time probably will be the Hollywood Gold Cup, which makes sense. Still, this is one reporter who has seen enough. Twirling Candy has as much talent as any older California-based horse since Lava Man. And while Lava Man loved turf and dirt and merely tolerated synthetics, Twirling Candy handles all three with graceful disregard. Unhinged habits and all, I would love to see him go eastward before the Breeders' Cup, if only to prove that there are still a few stars on the rise out West.


In a recent post celebrating the 90th birthday of Dr. Jack Robbins, among the founding fathers of the Oak Tree Racing Association, I saw a conclusion and promptly jumped to it -- incorrectly.

According to Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's vice-president and executive director, the non-profit association is still very much in the market to operate a major race meeting in Southern California. In fact, despite losing their long-running autumn dates at Santa Anita, Chillingworth noted that Oak Tree is laying the groundwork to apply for dates to run a meeting at Del Mar in the fall of 2012, from late October through Thanksgiving.

This is good news. Racing needs more dates operated by non-profits rather than shareholder driven corporations. California also needs the shake-up call an Oak Tree/Del Mar application would provide, since the dates in their sights are currently operated by Hollywood Park. The California racing calendar has required serious reevaluation for years, especially since Hollywood Park's corporate ownership began floating redevelopment plans (http://www.hollywoodparktomorrow.com/) and has been operating on what amounts to year-by-year promises to the racing industry. Without question, Hollywood Park holds a lot of cards in terms of training and infrastructure. But in these tough times every racetrack operation needs to justify their place at the table with the best possible numbers. There were 4,577 live souls at Hollywood Park to watch Twirling Candy.