07/22/2009 11:00PM

Horse and rider both more mature


DEL MAR, Calif. - Ben Craft was bent over and sweating on a recent Del Mar morning, hard at work putting a set of St. Croix aluminum racing plates on the two very large front feet attached to Monterey Jazz, the horse to catch in Saturday's running of the $350,000 Eddie Read Handicap.

For that matter, Monterey Jazz is the horse to catch whenever he leaves his stall at the Craig Dollase barn. The shoes being shaped by Craft might as well have come in a box marked "size 8/xtra fast." From the moment Monterey Jazz ran off and hid in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita in February of 2008, he has been an entertaining extrovert, tapping into the same competitive joy that fueled such effervescent animals as Native Diver, Ack Ack, Precisionist, and Holy Bull.

Monterey Jazz has a ways to go before he is welcomed in such company. But his last two races over firm grass at Hollywood Park have signaled a subtle personality change. First, there was the course-record mile after which he barely took a deep breath. Then there was the nine-furlong American Handicap, on the Fourth of July, during which he actually allowed another horse to be in front around the first turn.

"He ran like a true professional," said Tyler Baze, who has ridden Monterey Jazz in his last three races. "Even though he's going fast, he is so relaxed. He's a little slow out of the gate, but that's only because he's so big. All all you need to do is just kind of let him get into his own stride. And when he gets into that high cruising speed, he's just as cool as a cucumber."

Monterey Jazz, a son of Thunderello, will have to throw in a good one Saturday to handle challenges from lasy year's Eddie Read runner-up. Whatsthescript, Shoemaker Mile winner Thorn Song, American runner-up Artiste Royal, and stablemate Awesome Gem, who comes out of a good grass win of his own at Hollywood Park.

After the Read, the path for Monterey Jazz leads straight to the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, and the Mile on the grass would seem to be his best target, even though Dollase suggested the BC Dirt Mile is a possibility as well if it happens to rain in November.

It is nice to have such options, especially since Monterey Jazz has the kind of modern-day record that requires interpretation. His main-track victory in the Strub was accomplished over a Cushion Track/Pro-Ride hybrid, and he failed as the favorite in the subsequent Santa Anita Handicap. Then there was his Texas Mile, on good old-fashioned Lone Star dirt, and his bust as the favorite in Cigar Mile last November.

"That was a little ambitious," Dollase conceded. "It was the kind of race he should have won, but he probably wasn't as fit as he could have been coming off a layoff."

David Flores rode Monterey Jazz in the Strub and Texas Mile, while Baze took over in an allowance race at the Santa Anita meet in March.

"I'd been trying to get on him, so I wanted to be impressive on him when I got the chance," Baze said. "The first time I rode him, I hit him right-handed and he ducked in. I hit him left-handed and he ducked out. After that I just hand rode him to the wire and he ended up fourth. I was disappointed, so I asked David, 'What did you do?' He told me, 'You got to send him, then just sit. Keep your hands of his neck and just sit. And don't hit him.' "

Baze took the advice to heart, and the results have been inspiring. Dollase has enough confidence in his horse and rider to bring them back just three weeks after their geared-down 3 1/4-length American score.

'This horse just likes to be out there doing his thing, letting it all hang out, which makes Tyler is a great fit for him," Dollase said. "He just kind of puts horses to sleep on the front end, and he rode him so beautiful last time. The other horse went out and kind of set the pace the first quarter-mile. Then when they got to the backside, he just inhaled 'em. Game over."

It is interesting that Baze, 26, still gets pigeonholed as a front-running specialist, typified by his work several years ago aboard the free-running turf specialist Star Over the Bay. But that is becoming very old news, a holdover from the dark period during which he battled a severe eating disorder and tacked at under a hundred pounds. Baze could still nurse them around on the front end, but when it came to a fight at the finish, he was at a definite disadvantage.

The new Tyler Baze is a fit and healthy specimen, happily married and hooked up with agent Ronnie Ebanks, who is determined to put his rider on the national map. They have done a good job lately with the grass colt Battle of Hastings, who cleared the table at Colonial Downs, first in the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup and then last Saturday in $750,000 Virginia Derby. In both races, Baze won close photos that required a powerful finish.

"No question," Baze said. "I've never felt stronger. Making the weight is still a challenge. But I know I've got responsibilities to others than just myself. And you know what? That's a good feeling."