05/01/2011 11:59AM

Wanted: Handicap Division Leader

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Given how inconsistent – and yes, weak – the division has been this year, I thought that by default, Haynesfield could be the best older male in the nation before he even made his 2011 debut in Saturday’s Westchester Stakes at Belmont Park. Well, all I can say after the Westchester is, the search for the best older male in the land continues, and is turning increasingly desperate.

In fairness to Haynesfield, winner last year of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (in which he beat subsequent Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and 2010 champion older male Blame by four lengths) and Suburban, he was making his first start Saturday since his narrowly beaten second in the Cigar Mile five months ago. So even though Haynesfield has an established history of running well fresh, a horse still always owns legitimate claim to need a race off a layoff that long.

And Haynesfield was up against it right off the bat in the Westchester thanks to the curious trip from Christmas for Liam. In total contrast to the closing style he employed in his five prior career starts, Christmas for Liam came out of the gate intent on denying Haynesfield the lead at all costs, and the price was suicidal fractions of 22.34 and 44.72. One could question all day long the wisdom of using a lightly raced and seemingly emerging colt like Christmas for Liam for no other purpose than Haynesfield’s private battering ram, and the negative effects it could easily have on his future development. But that’s a mystery best addressed at another time.

Still, I’m not sure it is prudent to be too forgiving of Haynesfield, not after Caixa Eletronica won the Westchester, and won it from where he did. Now in his fifth season of racing, Caixa Eletronica had never before won a stakes of any sort in 40 career starts, 18 of which were for a tag, the lowest of which was $16,000. Then again, Caixa Eletronica had never raced for the Repole Stable and trainer Todd Pletcher, which he was doing for the first time Saturday off the $62,500 claim. And while the early pace was certainly damaging to Haynesfield and Christmas for Liam (they finished fourth and fifth, and last, respectively), it didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Caixa Eletronica, who was only a length or two off the lead in the early running, yet who went on to score by an emphatic three lengths.

So now we are searching for a new leader in the older male division in what is currently an epic battle of imperfection. After Haynesfield, here are the usual suspects:

Misremembered – Won his first start of the year like a clear cut divisional leader, but then lost in the Oaklawn Stakes at 2-5.

Twirling Candy – Won the Strub like an absolute world beater, but finished fifth at 1-2 in the Big Cap, and is still seeking his first win over older horses.

Game On Dude – Upset the Big Cap, should have been disqualified, and then was a soundly beaten second in the Charles Town Classic.

Setsuko – Beaten a nose in the Big Cap, but hasn’t actually won a race since his maiden win in December of 2009.

Mission Impazible – Game winner of the New Orleans Handicap – that is, after being part of a slow early pace.

Giant Oak – Capitalized on a great pace set up when he won the Donn, but didn’t get as favorable a set up in the New Orleans ‘cap, and could only manage third.

Morning Line – Game second in the Donn, but his win in the Carter most recently off the cut back to a sprint suggests that he might not be at his very best routing, despite his win in last fall’s Pennsylvania Derby.

Tackleberry – Reeled off three stakes wins at Gulfstream, though none higher than Grade 2, and he couldn’t subsequently take his game on the road, finishing fourth in the Charles Town Classic.

Duke of Mischief – Turned in one of his too-infrequent decisive victories in the Charles Town Classic, this time snapping a five race losing streak.

Gio Ponti – Don’t get me started on him being champion older male in 2009 despite failing to win a race of any sort on the main track that year. Ran well when fifth in the Dubai World Cup, but it still was only a fifth place finish, and it was on the other side of the world.

SamG More than 1 year ago
Not so long ago these would all be grade 3 types at best.Until and unless a horse steps forward I do not envy your task Mike.I say give Haynesfield one mulligan then throw darts if he tanks again.
Bill Daly More than 1 year ago
This division really is leaderless at the moment. I would definitely throw out the CT Classic since it was run over the bullring on a very muddy track. Lots of good horses can't handle that. Last year Commentator struggled over the track and was beaten by Researcher - a definite horse for the course. Speaking of which, WinWilly is a dictionary definition poster boy for that term. He absolutely loves Oaklawn, but I'm not so sure he can carry his game elsewhere. He did win at Delaware last summer so there is hope. I think Havre de Grace could, indeed, be better than these bums.
Dylan More than 1 year ago
Please, I'm outright willing to say that not only is Havre de Grace better than the males this year, but so is Blind Luck, Switch, Unrivaled Belle, and Awesome Maria are all better than the males. Heck I'd argue for KY Oaks winner Plum Pretty too. Right now the fillies and mares division is wayyyyyy more competitive than the male division. But if First Dude can continues what he has going he could rise further.
Funnyside More than 1 year ago
I don't know why a horse like Lookin at Lucky didn't return this year. He would have been the leader of the division by miles. He would have created the same (or more) excitement then Quality Road was getting early on in 4yr campaign. Already voted top 2yr & 3yr. Probably won't be remembered all that well for as he raced during the Queen's reign. Really a shame he could have continued the small amount of mojo the sport got from the last couple years.
Tom D. More than 1 year ago
You're being too kind about Saturdays' events. Xmas For Liam I thought was an emerging star. For Pletcher to let him be used like that is mind boggling. Hope the trip to the window was worth it for all invovled in the destruction of Christmas For Liam.
bob More than 1 year ago
the good old days of handicap stars such as lava man, cigar, thewickednorth, best pal, invasor(who hardly raced), st liam, and others are over...they save them for dubai or the breeders cup classic...and then off the breeding shed...no sane trainer is going to risk his horse in a lousy 250k handicap all summer long....too bad...
Steve More than 1 year ago
Trappe Shot is the top dog. Next Mission Impossible, Apart, and finally Duke of Mischief and Giant Oak.
Meghan More than 1 year ago
I think you're being a little harsh on Misremembered. He lost to a good horse who loves Oaklawn, and it wasn't like he completely quit to run last or anything. And I don't think you can hold the Charles Town Classic against anyone, since it was a three turn race at a bullring track run in mud. I think Misremembered, Tackleberry and Game On Dude will be tough all year.
dc More than 1 year ago
How can you have a list and no Successful Dan? What am I missing did you miss the Clark? Or the Keeneland meet? He is #1 .............
stable girl More than 1 year ago
What about Caracortado, Hamish Hy, Aikenite, and General Quarters? I do mean this as a genuine question, & would like to hear your thoughts.
Pete More than 1 year ago
Mike, I am going to make it easy for you. After the Alysheba it will be clear to everyone who the best handicap horse is.Pay attention. His initials are MI.Setsuko???????????Whats he doing ahead of Mission Impazible. Look for me in winners circle on Friday. I will mention to Jay that I warned you.
Ankle-Biter More than 1 year ago
You tell him Pete!!!!