10/14/2009 11:00PM

Oak Tree roundup



The beat goes on. Bob Baffert continued his strong run, even if unable to bring down any of the top prizes from this past weekend. Baffert, after a 5-for-11 first week, slowed down a bit (well, he had to), going 4 for 19 last week, though that still had him atop the standings, with 9 wins from 30 starts, three ahead of Mike Mitchell and John Sadler.

Mitchell got off to a bit of a slow start this meet, but saw things pick up in Week 2. He was just 1 for 8 opening week but remedied that with a fine second week, winning 5 of his next 17. Jeff Mullins quieted after his sizzling start (4 for 7), but that was mainly because he had just four starters last week, winning once. Brian Koriner hasn't entered many but has sure picked the right spots -- he was 3 for his first 5.

Even with the return of top riders Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano to nearly full-time status, Joel Rosario has carved himself a spot among the riding elite out West and leads the standings. He may be able to pad his lead a bit, with Gomez having the occasional Keeneland assignment, and both Gomez and Bejarano are slated to be at Woodbine for a few big mounts in stakes races there Saturday.


It may be a bit unfair to put Mine That Bird and Visit in the disappointment category, but nonetheless things didn't go right for those two in big stakes over the weekend.

Mine That Bird's situation was a bit more forgivable. The Kentucky Derby winner hadn't run in 10 weeks and was trying synthetic and elders for the first time. Things didn't get any better when he was faced with a snail-like pace scenario in the Goodwood. To his credit, he kept to his task well under Calvin Borel and finished with decent energy to be sixth. It wasn't a bad effort, and his connections have said the BC Classic is next. Still, he hasn't won since the Derby and let's not forget he was a huge longshot that day.

As far as Visit goes, she did everything right finishing second in the Yellow Ribbon, but after what she showed last fall it looked as if she could be the dominant turf filly in 2009. Instead, while she has run some good races, she remains winless this year. Even if they try the BC Filly and Mare Turf, that spot surely won't be any easier. Her best chance to save the year may be to wait and take another swing at Hollywood's Grade 1 Matriarch later next month, a race in which she was third last year.


The key quote regarding how Pro-Ride plays may have come from Gary Barber, who along with Team Valor International owns Gitano Hernando, the English import who upset the Grade 1 Goodwood last Saturday.

"The message being sent is this Pro-Ride surface is very turf-friendly," he said.

He may be right in more ways than one. Not only is the footing conducive to such surface switchers (less kick-back) but the way the surface plays often leads to a race shape more like a European grass event than an American dirt affair, and the Goodwood is a classic example.

You're talking about top-class horses, yet the splits for the 1 1/8-mile event were a dawdling 23.75 seconds, 48.54, and 1:12.64, which led to a bunched-up field turning for home and basically a quarter-mile sprint. It's no wonder that a European who was brought up with that style of racing succeeded, beating a horse like Colonel John who is more of a grinder and doesn't have that type of burst.

That's not to say you can't run fast on Pro-Ride. They came home quickly with the fourth quarter in a brisk 23.78 and the final furlong in 11.97. Optional-claiming 2-year-olds zipped six furlongs in 1:09.10 earlier on the card, and on Sunday, Gayego won the Grade 1 Ancient Title, the meet's top sprint (outside the BC Sprint), in a snappy 1:08.28.

Speed isn't as much of an advantage on this track as on dirt, particularly routing - or at least hasn't been in the first two weeks of the meeting. You can still have tactical speed and survive, but sizzlers are doomed, and even those who press the pace must still possess something of a turf-like burst in order to succeed.

The turf course continues to play fast but fair.


Unlike last week, there aren't any Breeders' Cup preps this weekend, but that doesn't mean there won't be some competitive stakes. Saturday's Grade 3 Ken Maddy Handicap on the hillside turf course brings out some of the better sprinting females on the circuit.

Queen Ofthe Catsle worked four furlongs here Monday in 48.20 for trainer Howard Zucker. He has campaigned her superbly, and she figures tough down the hill.


Square Eddie could have some appeal down the road. Dennis O'Neill, brother and assistant to trainer Doug O'Neill, sounded upbeat on the future of the one-time Derby hopeful. Square Eddie, knocked off the Derby trail with an injury, came back after nearly six months on the bench to finish a respectable sixth in the Grade 1 Ancient Title on Sunday.

"He needed the race, and it's definitely something to build on," he said. "We'll see where we're at and go from there."

A 2-year-old filly worth watching emerged from Saturday's card. Excellent News, a $250,000 daughter of Rahy (sire of Serena's Song, Exotic Wood, Fantastic Light) trained by Bob Baffert, may be getting things figured out. After a couple nice Del Mar efforts, she put it all together. She dogged pacesetter High Five Gal under Rafael Bejarano, took over when ready into the lane, and cruised home under wraps. She won by three lengths; it could have been a lot more. She likely isn't ready to dive into the Breeders' Cup, but there's a big race at Hollywood in December - the Grade 1 Starlet - where she could challenge for local leadership of the division.

The most interesting news to come from the Lady's Secret had nothing to do with Zenyatta. Lethal Heat, a superb second to Zenyatta, has Breeders' Cup aspirations - for both days. Trainer Barry Abrams has wheeled her back in just a few days before, with success. In fact, just a week prior to her Lady's Secret second she was second to males in the California Cup Classic. He has never brought her back the next day but is contemplating doing just that. Her itinerary may read, Friday - BC Ladies' Classic; Friday night - get some sleep; Saturday - BC Turf Sprint.


Zenyatta's victory in the Lady's Secret was stirring to be sure and gave us another chance to appreciate her. But for guts and the notion of a breakout race, you can point to Cowboy Cal in the Oak Tree Mile. Cowboy Cal went up for the lead and outgunned the sizzler Monterey Jazz. Despite having to use so much fuel from his outside post to get the lead, he rebuffed challenges in the lane, making him look Lure-like. This isn't to say he can beat Goldikova or Delegator, but this win at least makes you think the Mile isn't a Euro slam dunk.

Gayego's monster stretch run to win the Ancient Title was reminiscent of Midnight Lute and sent a warning that Zensational better bring his running shoes for the BC Sprint. Both Cowboy Cal and Gayego figure to be decent prices in their respective BC races as they'll be taking on heavy favorites.


Evening Jewel

Trainer: James Cassidy

Last race: Oct. 10, 5th

Finish: 2nd by 3

Juvenile daughter of Northern Afleet worked a bullet 1:12.40 here Sept. 24 to show she was thriving, and then ran quite nicely here. Trouble is, she ran into potential star Excellent News. This girl sat back, commenced with a smart wide run into the lane, and finished with good energy to get the place. She was no match for the winner but was pulling clear of the others with every stride.

Art Currency

Trainer: Mike Mitchell

Last race: Oct. 10, 9th

Finish: 1st by a neck

His first two U.S. outings weren't much, but both came on synthetic footing. He perked up down the hill here Oct. 4, setting the pace before finishing third, and he put it all together in this allowance at a mile. He went out to the early lead but quickly relinquished it while on the rail. He appeared to be in trouble turning for home but got going again, launched another bid, and gamely got the job done. No reason he can't move right up the ladder.


Trainer: John Sadler

Last race: Oct. 11, 4th

Finish: 2nd by 1 3/4

It took a while, but this 3-year-old may finally be putting it all together, and it's corresponded to moving to the long game. He rallied smartly from a very tough outside draw at Del Mar to win his maiden Sept. 3, and in his first try against winners here he nearly posted the mild upset. He hopped at the start to get away a bit slowly but pulled his way along on the outside to get position, bided his time midpack, swung out turning for home, and finished well.