01/11/2015 1:47PM

Watchmaker: Two big wins point to 2015 potential

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A good way to start a new year is with optimism, and two stakes performances Saturday – Lea winning the Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream and Calculator dominating the Sham at Santa Anita – gave us plenty of reason to look forward to the potential of the 2015 racing season.

Lea’s victory certainly was no surprise. He was a revelation when moved to dirt full time last winter at Gulfstream, running away with the 2014 edition of the Hal’s Hope, then beating the Eclipse Award winner Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Donn, a performance that even though it took place in February, remained one of finest of all of 2014. And though Lea had not raced since that Donn due to illness, he was favored against a sharp, if compact group Saturday, despite his 11-month absence.

OK, so let’s add up the score. Lea was coming off a long layoff, was in against a few opponents who were sharp and had a massive edge in recency, and did so in a one-turn-mile race that is very likely shorter than his best trip. If Lea overcame all that and nothing more, it would have been impressive enough. But he also overcame a tough trip – he lacked racing room from the midpoint of the far turn, finally was angled out sharply in upper stretch for room at a complete loss of momentum, yet still inhaled his field – and did so while running fast enough to earn, under the circumstances, a fine 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

Here’s hoping Lea got all of the bad stuff out of the way in 2014. If he stays healthy, it’s hard to see how he won’t be one of the most exciting horses of 2015.

As for Calculator, the field he made a show of in the Sham was not a good one. I realize Calculator had the field’s best Beyers off his seconds in the FrontRunner and Del Mar Futurity, but he also was soundly beaten in both of those races. I think the fact that Calculator was 3-5 in the Sham as a maiden had almost as much to do with the weakness of the seven winners he faced as with the comparatively big Beyers he got in his last two starts.

However, there are times when you have to go beyond the matter of a bad field making a horse look good, and this was one of them. Ground loss is a critical factor in fair conditions, and there isn’t any reason to think that Saturday’s track at Santa Anita wasn’t anything but completely fair. But Calculator crushed his Sham opposition despite being four to five wide on the first turn and three to four wide on the far turn. According to Trakus, Calculator covered more ground than anyone else in the Sham. He raced 40 feet more than runner up Rock Shandy and 31 feet more than third-place finisher Pioneerof the West yet beat those opponents by 4 1/4 and 8 1/2 lengths, respectively.

As much as Calculator boosted his stock in the Sham, he also strongly flattered two other California-based 3-year-olds. Calculator couldn’t get to within hailing distance of American Pharoah in the FrontRunner and Del Mar Futurity, so how good is that one? But Calculator did finish clearly ahead of Texas Red in the FrontRunner, and of course, Texas Red came back to romp in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the absence of American Pharoah and Calculator.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Hoppertunity’s victory in the San Pasqual two races after the Sham, but I can’t. Not this time.

Look, I like Hoppertunity just fine. He actually was very close to being my pick last year in the Kentucky Derby, which he missed because of injury, and I don’t see any reason to think he won’t be a prominent member of the handicap division this year as long as he remains healthy. But I don’t think his performance in the San Pasqual did anything to raise his profile. Hoppertunity had the easiest, ground-saving trip you could ever ask a horse to get, never having so much as a straw in his path. In fact, you can make a compelling case that runner-up Appealing Tale, who hasn’t won in more than 11 months, ran every bit as well if not better than Hoppertunity to be beaten less than two lengths after being three to four wide around the track.

Parranda was another dream-trip stakes winner Saturday, hers coming in Gulfstream’s Marshua’s River. The difference with Parranda, though, is she won so decisively that I doubt a tougher trip would have stopped her.

Finally, a word about the other Gulfstream stakes Saturday, the Fort Lauderdale. Mshawish held on to win the Fort Lauderdale after drifting out sharply into the stretch, anywhere from three to five paths, depending on how conservative you are, carrying Za Approval out in the process.

Frankly, I cannot believe the Gulfstream stewards did not post an inquiry and take a look at the incident. Perhaps the stewards conducted an “unofficial” inquiry and took a look without posting the inquiry sign and decided there was nothing there. But I’ve come to believe “unofficial” inquiries are bogus. If the stewards are looking at something, then hang the sign and let the public know about it. If you don’t publicly hang the inquiry sign, then as far as I’m concerned, you didn’t take a look. And what happened at the top of the stretch absolutely warranted an inquiry.

Why? Because Za Approval was beaten only a head for third. I believe getting taken out at the top of the stretch by Mshawish the way he was cost Za Approval a larger piece of the purse. And I don’t even think that can be debated. Moreover, Za Approval’s compromised placing had a profound impact on trifectas (with a pool of almost $207,000) and superfectas (with a pool of over $129,000).

And no, I was not pari-mutuelly involved.