01/11/2015 12:47PM

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.

Speedjama More than 1 year ago
Great point Mike on the lack of an official inquiry but while you're at it, shouldn't you mentioned GP should add another camera for incidents like these as the turf camera is set-up towards the inner rail and when races are run with the rail at 180 feet, like the race in question, it's not close to a head-on shot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mike – how many times through the 2015 season will we lament odd and opaque stewards' decisions and inquiries or lack thereof? Why would it be so difficult to provide the kind of post-race reports that Hong Kong does (for example, http://racing.hkjc.com/racing/info/meeting/Results/english/Local/20140521/HV/03), with stewards' decisions thoroughly explained (not just quoting the text of a particular rule with no reference to the particular situation in the actual race in question), references to all incidents in a race even if there was no formal inquiry, the evidence the stewards got from talking to jockeys provided, and any (even minor) injuries to horses detailed. Not to mentioned the ability to tracka horses' incidents and injuries through his whole career, listing of horses' weights and medications. How can it be in the public interest for NYRA not to tell us who the 20 or 22 horses are who they've ruled off the grounds? Why can't the public see the equine drug administration database on the Gaming Commission website? Why are various racing authorities in this country so uniformly stuck on stymying the public from getting information? I'm sure the horsemen are generally probably part of the problem, but still …… Al
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
Nice wrap-up. Enjoyed your take on the recent racing. I'm bummed though, as just learned Bayern is out of the San Antonio with a quarter crack! Do you think that Shared Belief will run?
Scott More than 1 year ago
Mike, I have to agree that Lea's performance in the Hal's Hope was impressive. He was definitely one of the horses that I was disappointed to see drop out last year. When you consider that I really didn't know him prior to his wins in the Hal's Hope and then beating my pick to win the BCC: Will Take Charge in the Donn, it was really disappointing that he disappeared afterward. It's nice that he's back and hopefully Palace Malice will make it all the way back and they can have a showdown out East prior to the BCC. Can Lea get 10F's, hopefully, we'll see. I liked Hoppertunity's win more than you did apparently. I'm not at all worried about the race time or the fact that the field he beat wasn't a particularly strong one. Nobody was gaining on him at the end of the race and that's what you want to see at this point in the season. Who wants to peak in the San Pasqual Stakes? LOL! A win is a win and this was just a day at the office for a very nice horse. I don't know if he can take down Shared Belief or California Chrome on their best days, but if they're a little off, then he could be there for sure. I'm still not convinced that SB is at his best on the dirt either. As for Bayern...if anybody presses him, then I say he folds every time. Still, I hope he makes it back healthy and happy. Calculator - It's still early, but one thing is clear to me about this upcoming year: barring injuries, California racing is where it's at right now. Both the 3 year old Division and the Handicap Division seem to have a West Coast edge at this point. Calculator might not have beaten anything special, but like you said, he ran further than any of the other and was drawing off with ease. If they can all stay healthy, then this year figures to be a banner year indeed! Fingers crossed!