07/26/2006 11:00PM

Minor-league shippers now fit well at Del Mar


DEL MAR, Calif. - It used to be safe for handicappers to discount minor-league shippers at the premier race meet in Southern California.

Del Mar, after all, was the classy jewel of the circuit. Before winning at Del Mar, a horse had to prove worthy by running well at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. Other tracks were second-rate, and usually not good enough.

Oh sure, an occasional longshot winner shipped up from Agua Caliente, just south of the Mexican border in Tijuana. And the cream of the northern California circuit sometimes won a race at Del Mar.

But those were the exceptions. At most class levels, Del Mar winners were horses with sharp form that was established at a major-league track, on a major-league circuit.

It simplified analysis of shippers - just draw an "X" through the past performances of any horse whose most recent running line was at a northern California track such as Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, Solano, or Pleasanton.

Turf Paradise shippers were mere field-fillers, and horses from the state of Washington were downright overmatched when they showed up to race at Del Mar.

Guess what? Times have changed, radically. Summer at Del Mar remains one of the highlights of the California racing season, but the racing has changed. Quality has waned. "Class" is less of a concern.

That's because the horse inventory in Southern California has been claimed out and watered down. Unfortunately this summer, many horses also have broken down. The population has become so thin that handicappers must reconsider those same minor-track shippers that once were so easy to dismiss.

Excessiveobsession, trained by Brian Koriner, shipped in from Solano with a career-high Beyer Figure of 70. Entered in a first-level allowance for California-bred fillies and mares on July 24, she won by 1 1/4 lengths and returned $31.

Bertera, trained by Dan McFarlane, shipped in from Turf Paradise with a career-high Beyer of 70. Entered in a $50,000 claiming sprint for 3-year-old fillies on July 24, she won by three-quarters of a length and returned $26.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has won twice this meet with northern California shippers, and said one reason for increased success of shippers is fluctuating class levels in Southern California.

"There is so much claiming [activity] that the categories change," he said. "You can come in with a $40,000 horse from northern California equal to these, then things change, and you bring another $40,000 horse that gets totally outclassed.

"It depends on who is coming up and down the ladder, and who's in and out at the time."

The two Hollendorfer winners from northern California include $25,000 maiden claimer Golden Via on July 19.

"I didn't feel like maiden-25 was an especially tough category anywhere - in northern or Southern California," he said.

Ghost Actor won a $40,000 claiming race July 22, two months after winning a $40,000 claimer at Bay Meadows.

Two Trails shipped in from Bay Meadows for trainer Terry Knight and sprang a $19.40 upset in a first-level turf allowance on July 21. Guitar Man, runner-up in his debut at Bay Meadows, won on July 24 for Art Sherman.

The total is six ship-in winners from the first 60 races this summer at Del Mar. The six winners came from just 48 horses whose last start was somewhere other than Hollywood, Santa Anita, or Del Mar.

"They can come from anywhere," said trainer Chuck Peery, whose Emerald Downs shipper One Mile Belle paid $30.20 early this month at Hollywood. "Horses from Seattle or Turf Paradise, bettors just don't feel they can compete, especially at Del Mar."

But the shippers can compete, and the trend is more than a single-season aberration. Last summer at Del Mar, 21 winners made their last start at a "lesser" track, including Golden Gate, Pleasanton, and Tampa Bay Downs. Eight of the shippers returned $20 or more, and included $95.20 winner Victory Light from Hastings.

One reason shippers have had increasing success is because the Del Mar trainer roster includes top stables and stock from the Bay Area.

"Guys like Jerry [Hollendorfer] and Art [Sherman] . . . those guys have good horses," said Peery, who was formerly based in Washington and northern California.

While Hollendorfer (3 for 8) and Sherman (2 for 10) ranked in the top five after the first seven days of the meet, several Southern California-based stables have struggled. Steve Knapp is 0 for 18; Bill Spawr is 0 for 14; Mike Mitchell and Bobby Frankel are each 1 for 11.

Before supporting a shipper, handicappers must appraise the ability of the familiar faces. Shippers generally have a tough time in a race filled with in-form locals that recently have earned speed figures close to par.

But when the familiar runners are dubious on current form, or their recent speed figures are below par, "outclassed" shippers deserve a second look.

"Maybe [the shipper] is a horse with speed, and there's a lack of it," Peery said, or "he is a horse that finishes every time."

Peery added that good paddock skills, which also are referred to as physicality handicapping, are key to backing a new shooter.

"Good horses look like it," he said. "When you see a horse walking over and he's not worried about anything - he's sharp without being nervous - that's good."

And when the known runners are suspect, the unknown can look even better - at Del Mar, Santa Anita, or Hollywood Park.