02/02/2014 3:08PM

Withers, and Other Thoughts

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No one knows for sure if Samraat and Uncle Sigh will go on to be important players on the Kentucky Derby trail. But for just a moment, let’s not concern ourselves with such things.

Why? Because the throw down Samraat and Uncle Sigh staged in Saturday’s Withers Stakes at Aqueduct was, from a pure entertainment standpoint, one of the best pieces of racing theater we’ve seen in a while. So let’s take a second and enjoy it for what it was.

This Withers connected on all levels because the potential beforehand was completely fulfilled on the track, which unfortunately doesn’t happen as often as we would like. Samraat and Uncle Sigh were in leagues of their own winning their two-turn debuts in their last starts by ridiculously large margins, and that combined with similar speed running styles made for an immensely appealing matchup on paper. How strong was their paper? In their first venture outside New York bred ranks into graded stakes company, Samraat and Uncle Sigh were both sent off at even money. But most importantly, these two colts delivered on the pre-Withers promise of something beyond the ordinary during the running with superb performances.

Everyone expected Uncle Sigh and Samraat to go at each other from the outset, and they did, through a pace that was strong when compared to the other routes on the card. What I found striking was the way these two separated themselves from the rest of the Withers field at every call. At first, they were 3 1-2 lengths ahead of their closest pursuer, then it was five, then seven, then 10. And finally, as Samraat took the measure of Uncle Sigh by one length at the wire (an accurate margin, but the battle between these two just felt much closer than that), there was a 10 1-4-length chasm back to the third finisher.

Two horses, both with big potential, both at the top of their games, and both running their races. This Withers really was a treat to watch.

Okay, time’s up. Now let’s try to get some perspective here. I’m not a fan of comparative handicapping, because it ignores far too many critical extenuating circumstances for my liking. But it would be disservice to not point out the form line of the Withers as taken through Classic Giacnroll.

Classic Giacnroll was beaten two lengths by Noble Moon when second in last month’s Jerome. Noble Moon, in his start before the Jerome, was beaten three lengths finishing third in the Nashua Stakes to Cairo Prince, who was so impressive winning last week’s Holy Bull. On Saturday, Classic Giacnroll finished 13 lengths behind Uncle Sigh.

Maybe you think that Classic Giacnroll didn’t show up Saturday, for whatever reason. You might be right. It happens, and that’s another reason why you can’t really rely on comparative handicapping. Then take your Withers form line through Scotland instead. Scotland finished third in the Jerome, beaten 4 1-2 lengths by Noble Moon. He finished a little more than 10 lengths behind Uncle Sigh Saturday.

As shaky as comparative handicapping is, it does suggest in this instance there is at least some reason to think Samraat and Uncle Sigh are in the ballpark with Cairo Prince right now. So do Beyer Speed Figures, as all three are operating in the mid-90 range at the moment. And this is good news for Samraat and Uncle Sigh, because Cairo Prince currently has to be near the top of anyone’s Kentucky Derby contenders list.

The Withers was an artistic success. Saturday’s Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, not so much.

If, on the far turn of the Davis, you were given a choice of two horses you didn’t want your money on, it would have been Vinceremos and Harpoon. They were the two horses in the first flight who were going backwards, giving every indication that their afternoons were done. The fact that Vinceremos and Harpoon wound up finishing one-two, just a nose apart, is an indication that the Davis was a race that fell completely apart (a notion supported by a breakdown of the internal fractions), and brings into serious question the strength of competition.

But if forced to take a horse out of the Davis going forward, it would have to be Harpoon. As Vinceremos re-rallied (so to speak) though an opening on the rail big enough to drive two tractor-trailers through, Harpoon swung seven or eight wide in upper stretch to launch his late run. Maybe Harpoon didn’t like being down on the inside, which is where he was until he finally angled sharply out. And he did seem to switch gears late after appearing to have all the momentum, suggesting he might be a bit camera shy. But at least Harpoon showed signs of life in the stretch.

Moving on to Santa Anita, I know Hollywood Starlet winner Streaming had a three-wide stalking trip in Saturday’s Las Virgenes against an opponent who was loose on what seemed to be a fairly comfortable lead. And I know that loose front-runner, Fashion Plate, recorded a lengthy maiden win in her prior start in her first start on dirt. But I was still disappointed that Streaming didn’t get the job done. And I will be very interested to see what Arethusa, a gaining third in the Las Virgenes, does in her next start. Arethusa, whose prior form is best described as moderate, galloped out strongly past the wire Saturday. Either she is much improved, or the Las Virgenes wasn’t a particularly strong race.

On the other hand, I’ll echo the praise Winning Prize received for his victory in Saturday’s Arcadia. You had to like how Winning Prize kept his cool when Regally Ready ran off in the middle stages, something that was not a given, and he was a more decisive winner than his 1 1-2 length win margin would suggest.

Update, Monday morning - Sunday's Palos Verdes at Santa Anita was also a terrific event, with Wild Dude following up on his much-improved recent form and prevailing from off-the-pace to emerge as a significant player in the sprint division.

But Wild Dude also had a perfect set up Sunday, and I was equally, if not more impressed with Secret Circle's effort in narrow defeat. Secret Circle, who was making his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint three months ago, was under severe pace pressure every step of the way, and just failed to hold on after taking over in the late stages.

I'm also forgiving when it comes to Sahara Sky. Sahara Sky, to no one's surprise, fell back to last of five early in the Palos Verdes, and never did pass a horse. But Sahara Sky was making his first start since winning the Met Mile last Memorial Day, and the six furlong distance was simply not far enough for him. Sunday's outing should serve its purpose and knock the rust off, and I expect Sahara Sky to be formidable going forward in the seven and eight furlong races he prefers.