09/26/2007 11:00PM

Bad things happen even to good horses

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Look closely enough, and handicappers can always find reasons to bet against good horses in good races.

They are plenty of both - reasons and horses - in three Grade 1 races Saturday, opening weekend of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. Want to be a skeptic? There is plenty of fodder:

* Nashoba's Key skipped her final workout leading to the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, race 3.

* Tasha's Miracle tied up and skipped her final start at Del Mar. She will start for the first time in more than seven weeks when she runs in the Oak Leaf Stakes, race 7.

* Lava Man has lost a step, and comes off his worst West Coast performance in more than two years if he runs in the Goodwood Stakes, race 9. A heavy favorite if he goes, Lava Man may be scratched and entered in the Oct. 7 Oak Tree Mile instead, trainer Doug O'Neill said.

Could the favorites be vulnerable? Or are the seemingly negative factors irrelevant?

The main track at Santa Anita was the source of worry early this week when the surface changed and work times slowed. Trainer Carla Gaines subsequently decided to skip a final workout for undefeated Nashoba's Key, who always trains on the main track.

Gaines downplayed the significance of the revised pattern.

"We tend to over-train them anyway," she said.

But when she takes on Citronnade in the Yellow Ribbon, it will have been 10 days since Nashoba's Key's last workout.

Except for an eight-day gap from before her most recent race, Nashoba's Key always breezes within one week of a start. For the Yellow Ribbon, the gap is 10 days. It is a small factor in a big race, and a deviation from routine. Chances are, it will not get Nashoba's Key beaten.

If Nashoba's Key loses the 1 1/4-mile turf race, Citronnade is to blame. The lone Yellow Ribbon front-runner, Citronnade combines tactical speed with a huge late kick that produced four wire-to-wire graded stakes wins this year. That is the Yellow Ribbon prediction - Citronnade leading at every call, Nashoba's Key narrowing the gap.

There is no shortage of speed in the Oak Leaf, a 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-old fillies. It will be the first start for Tasha's Miracle since Aug. 8, when she romped in the Grade 3 Sorrento. She tied up and scratched, however, from the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 3.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 1," trainer John Sadler said. "I didn't want to take a chance."

Sadler added that Tasha's Miracle enters the Oak Leaf with solid workouts, including seven furlongs in 1:25.80 on the main track here last Saturday. "She's training really good here, and the day she worked, the track was slow," he said.

But workouts are not a substitute for a race, particularly not with a developing 2-year-old filly who has never run long. Tasha's Miracle destroyed Set Play in the Sorrento, but Set Play subsequently won the Debutante when Tasha's Miracle scratched. It is possible Set Play has a fitness edge.

Sadler recognizes the dilemma.

"You can look at it two ways," he said. "One, she has had a race and she is going to be catching up to [Tasha's Miracle]. The other is that [Set Play] has had one more tough race, and how many of those can a 2-year-old filly put together?"

The third possibility is Cry and Catch Me. Runner-up to Tasha's Miracle in her debut in July, she subsequently was sold and transferred to Bob Baffert. In her Aug. 26 comeback, Cry and Catch Me romped by more than six lengths, winning with plenty in the tank and earning an outstanding Beyer Speed Figure of 92.

Her workouts since have been superb, she is bred to run long (by Street Cry), and might simply be the fastest, fittest filly Saturday. Cry and Catch Me will try to win the two-turn Oak Leaf off a maiden sprint, the same pattern as Oak Leaf winners Cash Included (2006), Composure (2002), and Tali'sluckybride (2001).

That is the Oak Leaf prediction - Cry and Catch Me running away from the field, with Tasha's Miracle and Set Play narrowing the gap.

The 1 1/8-mile Goodwood is the final stakes Saturday, and back-class Lava Man always commands respect. If the new Cushion Track plays as fast and fair as it did on Wednesday, Lava Man might rebound on the type of quick surface he prefers. His last-start debacle on the dreadfully slow Polytrack at Del Mar is a toss-out.

But Lava Man faces two legitimate challengers Saturday - Awesome Gem and fast Arlington shipper Lewis Michael. They are up-and-comers in peak form. All they have to do is beat a seven-time Grade 1 winner. Lava Man's recent races, however, suggest he has lost a step.

The Goodwood prediction is for Awesome Gem and Lewis Michael both to defeat Lava Man. That forecast is not enough to wager against the best horse.

When the matchups are as close as they appear to be Saturday, the only thing a bettor can do is hope for discrepancies in price.

One can always find reasons to bet on, or against, good horses. But ultimately, there is only one legitimate reason to place a bet - the odds.

In three stakes Saturday at Santa Anita, there is not a horse worth wagering on at less than 3-1. That includes Citronnade, Cry and Catch Me, Awesome Gem, and Lewis Michael.