07/26/2012 3:57PM

King: Liaison on the up and up in Jim Dandy

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Benoit & Associates
Liaison (right), finishing second to Nonios in the Affirmed, runs in Saturday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If one were to plot the form of Liaison on a chart, his performances would look like an inverted bell curve. He won a pair of stakes at 2, capped by a victory in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, then essentially fell off a cliff, going unplaced in four straight races. He then climbed back up with a second in the Affirmed and a third in the Swaps.

Now the question is, how much more, if at all, will his ascent continue? My guess: to the point of becoming the winner of Saturday’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

Liaison’s improving form points to continued development, as does his recent training. On Monday at Del Mar, he breezed six furlongs in 1:12.40.

Set up as a target for Paynter, the Belmont runner-up and Sunday’s Haskell favorite, Liaison broke off well in front, and though Paynter clocked the fastest time for the distance in 1:11.80, Liaison did not yield ground in the final furlong, although Paynter was under encouragement.

Trainer Bob Baffert said he may have erred in giving Liaison too much of a head start on Paynter, calling Paynter a “pretty lazy workhorse.”

Or perhaps Liaison is simply peaking.

Nothing in Paynter’s worktab suggests he is lazy – quite the opposite, in fact. Paynter has recorded six consecutive bullet workouts and has been the darling of West Coast clockers this year. Of the two, Liaison has been much more likely to post a slower work-time. And yet he recorded the more impressive drill.

Last workout aside, there are other factors to like, such as back class and winning connections. Baffert knows when to put his horses on a plane for cross-country travel, and rarely do they disappoint. One need only recall his meet at Oaklawn this year, when shipper after shipper scored for him there.

Liaison also fits in terms of the competition, with the Jim Dandy essentially drawing second-tier 3-year-olds.

Of the seven opponents facing Liaison, only Atigun hit the board in a Triple Crown race this year, finishing third in the Belmont. That strong performance may have been more the result of 1 1/2-mile staying power than sheer talent.

The Belmont aside, Atigun has only been competitive in maiden and allowance races – not in stakes races.

Good alternative in Mystic Lake

Sticking with the 3-year-olds, the $150,000 Mystic Lake Derby at Canterbury sets up as an intriguing race going a mile on the turf.

Among its entrants: Delegation, perfect in two starts at Woodbine while scoring at odds-on prices; Hammers Terror, who ran a 92 Beyer Speed Figure the last time he raced a mile on turf, doing so in winning the Charlie Barley at Woodbine; and another turf stakes winner, Gung Ho, who most notably was third this spring behind Dullahan and Hansen in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on Polytrack.

Yet those three horses have weaknesses. Delegation is by speed sire Speightstown and unraced beyond six furlongs; Hammers Terror is being wheeled back on two weeks’ rest after a disappointing fourth at Woodbine in the Toronto Cup; and Gung Ho hasn’t raced since going unplaced in the May 4 American Turf, plus has recorded just two published works since mid-June.

That leaves North of Never as a quality alternative. A horse that has made all of his starts in turf routes, he romped in fast time in an allowance at Churchill Downs last month, a race that followed a close fourth in the Arlington Classic behind turf beast Silver Max.

Look for him to stick to his 7-2 morning line, making him an overlay.

Duchess sets up for rallier

After playing a dirt race, the Jim Dandy, and a turf race, the Mystic Lake Derby, let’s complete the circuit of surfaces with Saturday’s Duchess Stakes on the Polytrack at Woodbine.

A seven-furlong dash for 3-year-old fillies, it drew an abundance of speed, which could leave the 8-5 favorite, front-running Man Stuff, vulnerable from her inside post.

From that position, she will probably take heat throughout on her outside and could very well end up having to go faster than she has in recent Polytrack starts.

Such a scenario would play to the strength of late-running Katie Get Excited, who cuts back to her best distance of seven furlongs after flattening out a bit in her last two while racing two turns.

Seven furlongs is her game, and she’s a filly who has already proved her effectiveness with long sustained rallies on the outside – just the kind of trip she figures to get, breaking from post 8 in a field of nine in the Duchess.