10/15/2006 11:00PM

Grading the BC Juveniles

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We have seen all the Breeders' Cup prep races at Keeneland, Belmont Park, and Oak Tree at Santa Anita. While the results may have been puzzling in some cases, we should have gained many handicapping insights to support some contenders on BC Day as well as reasons to downgrade or completely discard others.

Taking an obvious case, the outstanding 3-year-old Bernardini certainly showed no holes in his game as he cruised on by front-running Wanderin Boy in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Oct 7. So, despite Lava Man's seventh straight victory this year, in the Goodwood at Oak Tree the same day, there seems little doubt that Bernardini towers over the American-based contingent heading to the $5 million BC Classic.

Meanwhile, Lava Man's victory against the rejuvenated Brother Derek in the Goodwood may not have been in doubt, but Lava Man did seem to labor a bit through the final furlong of that 1 1/8-mile race. While that subjective observation might prove to be wrong on BC Day, it is that kind of assessment that must be made to know what to do with prominent BC contenders. I, for one, will look beyond Lava Man for suitable exacta and trifecta companions.

This underscores the central handicapping point about BC prep races. Horses that win these prep races may be spent, or may be giving subtle signs that they are ready to head in the wrong direction. At the same time, horses that performed encouragingly may be worth backing at generous prices in exotic pools or as potential win threats.

Take the 2-year-olds, who also have had their share of recent BC preps.

In the Oak Leaf at Santa Anita on Sept. 30, favored Point Ashley was second to Cash Included after breaking from an outside post position. Point Ashley may have lost some points with handicappers for that second-place finish, but the post-position assignments nullified the conclusion that Cash Included proved herself superior.

Yes, Cash Included won the Oak Leaf fair and square, but Point Ashley is bred to improve with racing experience and certainly will deserve a legit chance to reverse the outcome at Churchill if she draws a more favorable post.

On the other hand, there was not a whole lot to like about Cohiba Miss, $28 winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Sept. 30; or Bel Air Beauty, a $96 winner of the Alcibiades at Keeneland on Oct 7; or Sutra, the $27 winner over 47-1 shot Enchanting Star in a painfully slow Frizette at Belmont on Oct. 14. In the one-mile Frizette, Meadow Breeze, a 34-1 narrow winner over Octave and Featherbed in the Matron on Sept. 23, was not a serious factor.

In each of these BC Juvenile Fillies prep stakes, a favorable pace scenario helped determine the outcome and none of the winners reached a performance level usually associated with potential BC winners.

All of the Juvenile Fillies preps, except for the Oak Leaf, indict the overall weakness of this division - a weakness that may lead to juicy payoffs in the BC Juvenile Fillies' exotic pools.

In the preps for the BC Juvenile, other handicapping issues surfaced.

Great Hunter, who had finished a good second to Horse Greeley in the Del Mar Futurity at seven furlongs on Sept. 6, seemed vastly improved when he won the Breeders' Futurity at 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack surface.

A son of 2001 Jockey Gold Cup winner Aptitude, Great Hunter's ability to handle a distance of ground gives trainer Doug O'Neill a legit contender for his second straight BC Juvenile, following Stevie Wonderboy's triumph last year.

Finishing second as the favorite in the Breeders' Futurity, the highly rated Circular Quay raced in spots after three straight stretch-running victories in one-turn races at Churchill Downs and Saratoga. While Circular Quay may benefit from this race, a set of blinkers also might help sharpen the focus of this long-range Kentucky Derby prospect.

In the Norfolk Stakes at Oak Tree, Stormello benefited from Horse Greely's sudden case of sore ankles that knocked him out of contention and the Breeders' Cup. Stormello also improved significantly in his first outing around two turns.

A weakening third to Horse Greeley and Great Hunter in the Del Mar Futurity, Stormello scored an eye-catching, stretch-running win over Principle Secret, while each colt earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 96. Principle Secret, who missed some training and had to skip the Del Mar Futurity, was forced to deal with fast early fractions while under pressure and just missed holding off Stormello. Although beaten, Principle Secret's gallant effort certified his standing as the one to catch in the BC Juvenile.

At Belmont Park, while Futurity winner King of the Roxy was sitting out the Champagne Stakes on Oct. 14, Scat Daddy rallied from mid-pack to score a hard-fought victory over Nobiz Like Shobiz and front-running Pegasus Wind to give trainer Todd Pletcher still another Juvenile contender to go with Circular Quay and King of the Roxy.

I admire Scat Daddy's gritty effort, but I was impressed with the physical size and scope of Nobiz Like Shobiz, winner of his only prior start by nearly 11 lengths.

Few hugely proportioned 2-year-olds are capable of demonstrating agility, much less high-class speed under the gun. In fact, Nobiz Like Shobiz's size and generous stride vaguely recalled two of the greatest horses of the 20th century: Seattle Slew and Forego.

Seattle Slew was a strongly built, very fast champion 2-year-old who developed into the 1977 Triple Crown winner. Forego also was a fast young horse, but did not reach his peak until he turned 4 in 1974.

Nobiz Like Shobiz has a long way to go to be favorably compared to either Seattle Slew or Forego, but it was remarkable that this hugely proportioned colt performed so well in the Champagne while obviously needing time to grow into his body.

At the bottom line, we learned by watching these BC preps that there are precious few high-class contenders in the Juvenile Fillies division and there are more than a half-dozen legit rivals we need to keep in mind for the BC Juvenile.

Point Ashley and Cash Included seem much the best of the BC Juvenile Fillies contenders who raced in New York, California, and Kentucky this year, although the Pletcher-trained pair of Feather Bed and Octave were defeated only narrowly in the seven-furlong Matron and gave hints they would improve at the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile Fillies distance.

Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Circular Quay, King of the Roxy, and Principle Secret are among a large contingent of potential win threats in the BC Juvenile. To properly assess their relative chances at Churchill Downs, I can only recommend repeated analysis of the BC Juvenile prep race tapes, or perhaps Dan Illman's Breeeders' Cup prep-race trip notes at www.drf.com.