06/05/2011 11:33AM

Twirling Candy, Noble's Promise, and Other Stuff

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After months of hand wringing over the sad state of the handicap division, and with recent concerns over the status of the male sprint division (defending champion and divisional leader Big Drama is out until late summer, and no one has stepped up in his absence), we were offered real hope Saturday.

Twirling Candy won the Californian at Hollywood Park, which surprised hardly anyone as he went off at 2-5, and Noble’s Promise took the Aristides at Churchill Downs, which threw few as he was hammered down to 8-5. But their victories helped restore some clarity and order.

Twirling Candy was making his first start in three months, his first start ever without blinkers, and was asked to demonstrate a heretofore unseen dimension, and yet was still about 10 times better than his win margin of 1 ¼ lengths would suggest. Twirling Candy, a free (maybe too free) running sort who has always operated near the pace going long, was hard held off a slow pace, much, it appeared at times, to his consternation. He was still far closer to last than first in mid stretch, having to angle out over heels for racing room. And then when he got that room … my, oh my. With a breathtaking turn of late foot that you rarely see in main track races, Twirling Candy just inhaled his field in a matter of strides while barely being asked to run. This was a stark, but welcome reminder that when Twirling Candy performs like this, there might not be another horse in America who is his equal. It was also a compelling argument that perhaps it is best to overlook his misstep in the Big Cap earlier this year.

Noble’s Promise wasn’t as impressive as Twirling Candy, but he did good work. Every now and then, Atta Boy Run runs out of his mind, and Saturday was one of his “on” days. And Capt. Candyman Can, a Grade 1 stakes winner, moved in upper stretch like he was going to win. But Noble’s Promise reeled in Atta Boy Roy and outkicked Capt. Candyman Can to win the Aristides decisively. Of course, Noble’s Promise is a Grade 1 stakes winner himself who had a couple of entertaining battles with two-time Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky. In other words, Noble’s Promise is a quality individual, one who is now poised to make a big impact on the sprint division from this point forward.

It should come as no surprise that Graham Motion and Dale Romans, the trainers of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford, last week defended this year’s 3-year-old crop that has widely been labeled as average at best. These fellows are not exactly objective observers. They spend almost every day with these horses, and it is their hard work that has enabled these colts to succeed at the highest levels of this game. If they can’t be cheerleaders for their classic-winning 3-year-olds, and by extension this 3-year-old crop, who can be?

It should also be noted that Motion and Romans also have a vested interest in improving the perception of this 3-year-old crop. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford will eventually retire from racing and stand at stud – let’s hope that doesn’t happen until they at least complete full 4-year-old campaigns – and it is just a fact that if breeders agree that these colts were merely best of a bad crop, then they won’t be as valuable as stud prospects as they would be if they were classic winners from a crop perceived as strong. There is serious money at stake here, so it is understandable that there is a little salesmanship going on.

In fairness, one can’t truly judge the strength of a 3-year-old crop until the fall at the earliest when they finally face older horses in meaningful situations. And even then, you only have a small handful of samples to go on. But there are other means of getting an early line on the relative merits of a 3-year-old crop. For example, Animal Kingdom’s winning 103 Beyer Figure in the Kentucky Derby was the third lowest in the 20 years Beyer figures have been published for the race. Shackleford’s 104 Beyer in the Preakness tied for the fourth lowest in 20 years of Beyers for the race. Heck, not a single final Triple Crown prep this year even had a triple digit Beyer Figure. Yes, these 3-year-olds will run faster as they mature. If they don’t, then they really are a bad bunch. But right now, this is not a fast crop, and is there anyone left who doesn’t believe in the correlation between running fast and being good?

Apparently, trainer H. James Bond is not a believer. Colleague Dave Grening quoted Bond as saying “Time only counts in jail” (man, that crusty old saw is like nails down a blackboard for me) after Bond sent out Tizway to win last Monday’s Met Mile in a sizzling 1:32.81 for an excellent Beyer of 113. All I know is, even though he won by 2 ¾ lengths, if Tizway ran just a teeny tiny little bitty second slower than he did, Bond wouldn’t have met him in the winner’s circle.