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The hottest horse on the circuit has to be The Usual Q. T. The California-bred gelding never looked like a loser in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, stalking the pace, pitching out into the lane, and powering home to win well. This on top of his Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby win stamps him the top 3-year-old turfer out West, and since there were some big-shot East Coast 3-year-olds left in his wake here he might be considered the best of that division in the land. He's now won five straight and in less than four months has gone from Cal-bred maiden winner to a Grade 1 winner for trainer Jim Cassidy.
A 3-for-11 week helped John Sadler extend his lead a bit in the trainers race. He ended the week 10 for 34. That put him four clear of Julio Canani, who has been strong (6 for 17) despite a couple disappointing efforts from well-regarded Turf Festival runners Blue Chagall and Black Bear Island.
Hot-riding Joel Rosario blew out to a clear lead with a 10-for-36 week. He came into the week with a one-win edge over Joe Talamo but his 21-for-86 mark put him six clear of Talamo (15 for 73).
Atticus Jack, stakes placed and promising at Santa Anita last winter, made his long-awaited return to the races after an injury in an optional claiming sprint here Nov. 25. This likely isn't what trainer Brian Koriner had in mind. As the 2-1 favorite, Atticus Jack, under Talamo, stalked pacesetter and eventual winner Tactful, but got in a bit tight, had to steady and couldn't recover, ending up fifth. You can certainly give him the benefit of the doubt and say he needed that race and that he had some trouble, but you still have to wonder if he's the same horse.
It's hardly fair to put Bob Baffert in this section. After all, the silver-haired one had an amazing Oak Tree meeting, winning the title there with a record of 24 wins from 71 starters, and there was no way he could maintain that success through another meet. He's won much less frequently this meet but was still fourth in the standings with four winners from 24 starters. Then again, maybe he's been a bit unlucky, too - after all, he has nine seconds as well. One way to look at it is this: His barn is regrouping, getting ready for a big push come Santa Anita.
Blue Chagall, who oddly was favored over proven graded-stakes types in Friday's Grade 1 Citation off a restricted stakes win at Oak Tree, prompted the pace but fell apart to run last of eight.
Take the Points and Black Bear Island, both of whom attracted ample attention in the Hollywood Derby, seemed in ideal spots midway through but fell apart to finish seventh and eighth.
Speed, or at least tactical speed, continues to carry the day over this Cushion Track. While some winners may not have actually set the pace, the vast majority of them were within two lengths of the lead in opening quarter mile in sprints, within one length after the opening half-mile in routes.
That isn't to say you can't win from off the pace. On Nov. 25, for example, two races - one route and one sprint - were captured by horses coming from far back.
There were three turf races Wednesday, and the first two (one at a mile, one a sprint) were both won in wire-to-wire fashion. The third (a mile) was won by a horse who sat second all the way and just got up in the final jump to win by a nostril. Oh, and the runner-up happened to be the one on the pace from the start, meaning we were just a nose short of three wire-to-wire winners in as many turf races on the day. Overall, though, speed remains neither a statistical plus or minus in turf routes.
That is not the case in turf sprints, however, which sees a continued heavy tilt toward speed (6 of the first 14 turf sprints, 43 percent, were won wire to wire).
The Turf Festival may be over but there remain races that can cause some ripples in the national waters.
Lava Man continues his comeback at age 8, and is pointing for the Dec. 12 Native Diver. He worked a bullet six furlongs in 1:12.20 under Joel Rosario here Nov. 21, delighting trainer Doug O'Neill.
"He worked in company, broke about three lengths off, ranged up in mid-work and finished strong," said O'Neill.
Blind Luck, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, continues to work well for the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet on Dec. 20 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Trainer Ken McPeek said Robby Albarado would come in to ride Noble's Promise in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity Dec. 19 and Beautician in the Hollywood Starlet. Noble's Promise finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Beautician second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
There figures to be considerable intrigue regarding where the Juddmonte runners go after the death of trainer Bobby Frankel.
Juddmonte had been Frankel's major client for nearly 20 years. Frankel's former assistant Humberto Ascanio continues to train those horses. But as to what Juddmonte will do long term, that is up in the air, according to John Chandler, who oversees Juddmonte's U.S. operation.
"Bobby was a two-coast trainer," Chandler said. "Obviously, we've given this a lot of thought. But we haven't made any firm decisions."
Ascanio said he has been told by Juddmonte "that I will keep the horses for a while, but ultimately [Juddmonte owner Prince Khalid Abdullah] will have to make a decision."
Black Mamba is among the locals competing in international races in the Far East this month.
The mare is back with trainer John Sadler after being sold last month at the Fasig-Tipton November sale and is targeting the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase on Dec. 11, Sadler said.
Marsh Side, from the Neil Drysdale barn, finished 17th in the Group 1 Japan Cup Sunday.
Garrett Gomez is absent this week. He is in Japan to compete in a jockey challenge competition at Hanshin on Saturday.
PERFORMANCES OF THE WEEK
Conveyance could be a comer for Baffert. Everyone knows Baffert's prime Kentucky Derby prospect is Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Lookin at Lucky. But Conveyance, a $240,000 sales buy, gives him another bullet. Conveyance won his maiden in wire-to-wire fashion at Oak Tree Oct. 31. In his first try vs. winners here Nov. 25, the son of Indian Charlie again bounced right out to the lead and kept going, reporting home seven lengths on top. Yes, it was just another sprint. Yes, the track played heavily toward speed. And, yes, it was a small field and not the strongest one in the world. Still, you had to love the way he took pressure to the quarter pole before bounding home, winning geared down, the six furlongs in a fast 1:09 for a heady Beyer Speed Figure of 99. Remember, his sire won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and was third in the Kentucky Derby, so there's some pedigree to go along with obviously some terrific speed and talent. It's not inconceivable Baffert wheels him back in the CashCall Futurity.
Ventura was nothing short of dazzling winning her swan song, Saturday's Grade 1 Matriarch. The way she blasted home here and in some of her other turf outings make you think she could have given Goldikova a run for her money in the BC Mile. It's off to the breeding shed now, and if her foals have half her ability, they'll be quite smart.
HORSES TO WATCH
Wink and Nod
Trainer: Marcelo Polanco
Last race: Nov. 5, 5th
Finish: 3rd, by 2 1/4
Took all the worst of it but still ran on nicely at 30-1 in what may be a sign she's coming around. First, she's a closer on a track that was tilted heavily toward speed (three wire-to-wire winners in the five main-track races). Then, things didn't get any better when the gates opened - she got squeezed back at the start and was still last going to the backstretch. To her credit, she kept to her task and continued a solid sustained run to the wire. A better start and a surface not too slanted against her give her an upset shot next time.
Trainer: Dan Hendricks
Last race: Nov. 26, 2nd
Finish: 2nd, by 1 1/4
Appears back on the right track. This daughter of multiple Grade 1 route stakes winner Johar didn't do much in her first five starts, but she perked up with two fine turf routes at Del Mar in August, finishing third and second. However, she came back after two months off and was a dull eighth at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. Maybe she needed the race, or maybe it was just one of those days as she came back here and responded smartly. She was last much of the way, and on a turf course surely slanted toward speed, she put in an energetic run to be a clear second at 20-1. She may be ready to peak and can post a mild surprise against similar maidens going long on turf.
Miss Silver Brook
Trainer: Julio Canani
Last race: Nov. 28, 7th
Finish: 3rd, by 3
Was unlucky not to do better. At the start of this turf sprint, she broke slowly and then had to steady, losing any chance to get a tactical position. Instead, she had to play from well behind and to her credit she found top gear in the lane and closed well for third. She has more tactical speed than she was able to show, so she doesn't have to come from way out of it. Not only was the early going her undoing, but she was running against the grain - speed has thoroughly dominated turf sprints this meet.