05/01/2011 12:59PM

Wanted: Handicap Division Leader


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.