03/14/2013 3:24PM

Byron King: Joyful Victory is worth betting on, for once, in Santa Margarita

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Joyful Victory, the winner of the Houston Ladies Classic in January, is the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Santa Margarita.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – I admit, I’ve had a love affair with Joyful Victory for almost two years now.

I type the words “love affair” in jest as, truth be told, what I truly loved about her was the opportunity to bet against her. Beginning with her starting as the favorite in the 2011 Kentucky Oaks and continuing through the end of 2012, she was a money destroyer for her backers, winning 1 of 10 races despite going off at 5-2 odds or less eight times. And even when she did win, in the Tiffany Lass at Fair Grounds last year, she paid . . . wait for it . . . $3.60

But I’ve had a change of heart about Joyful Victory, seeing more aggressiveness and determination from her in recent starts, leading me to hope she is a more dependable mare.

I certainly hope so: I’ll bet her to win Saturday’s Santa Margarita at Santa Anita Park, unless she is bet down from her 9-5 morning line.

Why the change of heart? It stretches back to a performance she turned in at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3 in the Chilukki Stakes, a race she lost by the narrowest of margins, but a race in which she showed much more fight than usual.

Racing against Brushed by a Star, she and that rival battled the final furlong, and although Joyful Victory fell a head short on the wire, she rallied past the winner shortly past the wire and was simply the unlucky recipient of a head bob – the rough equivalent of a well-placed basketball shot rolling in and eventually out of the rim.

Coming off that strong performance, she regressed in her final start of 2012, fading to third in the Fall City Handicap at Churchill Downs. But her most recent performance in the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic on Jan. 26 was even superior to her Chilukki race, resulting in a wire-to-wire, 4 1/4-length triumph.

Now sent to Southern California for the Santa Margarita, I fully expect her to continue to produce at the high level she has shown in two of her last three starts, particularly against a small field that is light for a Grade 1.

So, despite Joyful Victory’s past short-priced failures, I’m feeling the love in backing her Saturday.

Channel Lady might have fitness edge

A month from now, if faced with the prospect of handicapping a matchup between Centre Court, Channel Lady, and Samitar, I doubt Channel Lady would be my selection. By that point, both Centre Court and Samitar will have raced, and both appear classier than Channel Lady.

But that is a month from now. These three fillies will meet Saturday in the Honey Fox Stakes at Gulfstream Park along with a number of other talented turf runners, and this time, Channel Lady could have a fitness edge over her comebacking rivals, Centre Court and Samitar.

For both Centre Court and Samitar, this race looks like a prep for the Keeneland meet that begins in April, which just might result in them returning at a little less than their best.

Extravaganza is horse for the course

A rare event is likely Saturday at Fair Grounds: turf racing on a firm course. This comes after a long winter of off-the-turf days and wet turf caused by substantial rainfall and a slow-drying course.

Sun and warm weather is forecast leading up to Saturday, and two turf stakes are on tap: one for males, the Bonapaw, and the other for fillies and mares, The Happy Ticket.

It is the latter race that is the most appealing to this horseplayer. The bet there is 5-1 Extravaganza, an Elusive Quality filly seeking her first stakes victory and attempting to do so over her favorite course, where she is perfect in three starts.

She also has twice run very fast on the local course, posting Beyer Speed Figures in the mid to upper 80s, including in a triumph Feb. 17 on a course rated “soft.”

Those figures, along with her local record, make her an appealing play at her morning-line odds.