11/23/2007 1:00AM

Daytona primed for big race

EmailPHOENIX - This week is all the proof you need to realize that the season at the highest level does not end Breeders' Cup weekend. Sure, Curlin and some of the others at the top of the pecking order may not be in action, but stakes with major implications are still served up. Sunday's Grade 1 Matriarch and Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park not only figure stirring from a sporting aspect, but the two turf events present significant handicapping quandaries and the potential for a nice payoff.


Defending champ Price Tag isn't here. Neither is the top-class Citronnade, who may want a bit more ground, nor Nashoba's Key, who suffered her first defeat at the hands of likely division champ Lahudood in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Vacare would have been one of the favorites here, but has been forced to miss the race after bleeding severely following a work.

That makes things much easier for the others.

Wait a While, last year's 3-year-old champion filly, is still capable of huge things, particularly on firm ground. Last year when she came west, she romped in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon over her elders, so you know she can ship here and win. This year she has been more inconsistent, but as she showed in her devastating Grade 2 Ballston Spa win at Saratoga in August, there may not be a better middle-distance turf filly. She scratched from the BC Filly and Mare Turf when rains made the course a bog.

Naissance Royale has never quite been able to get over the hump against the absolute best, but this hard-knocking mare turned in one of her best outings when she galloped home in the Grade 2 Las Palmas at Oak Tree, which came at this same mile trip. Precious Kitten was a game second to Vacare in the Gradeo2 First Lady at Keeneland, won the Grade 2 Palomar and Grade 1 John C. Mabee at Del Mar, and was second to Lady of Venice in the Grade 2 CashCall Mile here in July, so you know she fits.

All that being said, few fillies or mares pack a wallop like Lady of Venice. Yes, Vacare beat her handily in the First Lady, but Lady of Venice was hurt by a wide trip and moderate pace. That may not be the case here. The pace figures solid, and with the smallish field she shouldn't get hung out to dry. But even if she does, she's shown a late burst that can overcome trouble. This is the distance she wants and her win in the CashCall Mile here in July was spectacular. Off that loss to Vacare last out, her odds may creep up, too.

Hollywood Derby

Every once in a while the visual impact of a performance will smack you right between the eyes. You get that little chill, that gut reaction that says you're seeing something special. Well, that's what I got when I saw Daytona win the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby across town last month.

After a solid third on Del Mar's Polytrack in the El Cajon, he was slated for dirt at Fairplex, but a rare rain storm (was someone telling trainer Dan Hendricks something?) made the track sloppy, so Daytona was scratched. He instead moved back to turf and may have given us a glimpse of a future star.

Daytona looked eager early in the Oak Tree Derby - he's always shown tactical speed routing. He dueled for the lead, but it mattered not. He

easily dispatched the other speed, blowing the race wide open with a big move on the far turn and into the lane. With four works since, including a bullet 1:26.20 seven-furlong work at Santa Anita on Nov. 12, he looks like he's fit and feeling good.

Nobiz Like Shobiz is the marquee name and may well be the horse to beat. But he comes off a big try, a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and must now ship across the country just a month later. He must run a quarter-mile farther than in the Mile, and figures a short price against a tough field. His quality is not in dispute; the situation is.

Nobiz Like Shobiz, Medici Code, Bold Hawk, and some others pose significant hurdles here, but Daytona looks like a horse on the rise, and the competition can only help boost your price to something around 6-1. And that looks pretty darn good from here after watching another replay of that huge Oak Tree Derby run.