11/25/2008 12:00AM

A peek at next year's best


PHOENIX – Thanksgiving week is one of my favorite weeks of the year – and I’m not talking about the gustatory delights.

This week highlights horses who may be major players in next year’s Triple Crown as well as in top-shelf turf races. A few will try to step forward in what will presumably be the post-Curlin older horse vacuum.


Grade 1 Citation at Hollywood: Whatsthescript ran one of the best races of the Breeders’ Cup when third in the Mile. He had a terrible post and tough trip, but closed strongly. With one of his main opponents, Shakis, having been injured and euthanized on Friday, Whatsthescript looks awfully difficult to handle here.


Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct: This race lost some luster when plans to run the top 3-year-old filly Zaftig had to be dropped when she suffered a career-ending injury. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue. The vacancy created out East by the retirements of Curlin and Big Brown needs to be filled, and Harlem Rocker and Tale of Ekati look to stake their claim.

Trainer Todd Pletcher was gushing about Harlem Rocker earlier this year, and there were thoughts of a Preakness run after a huge win in the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct. He took the Canadian option instead and finished fourth in the Plate Trial and won the Prince of Wales. A fourth in the Grade 1 Travers and third last month in the Grade 2 Jerome (in the slop) show his quality. This has been his target since. Tale of Ekati beat Harlem Rocker when he won the Grade 2 Jerome, but prior to that finished seventh in the Travers behind Harlem Rocker on a dry track. He won the Grade 1 Wood here and was a respectable fourth in the Kentucky Derby on fast tracks.

Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct: The question is, how good is Old Fashioned? The son of Unbridled’s Song comes off a monster maiden win at Delaware, and trainer Larry Jones, of Hard Spun, Eight Belles and Proud Spell fame, says he has very high hopes for this guy. But you have to love the way Hello Broadway finished up behind Break Water Edison in the Grade 3 Nashua here a few weeks ago. He had some traffic issues, and while he wasn’t going to beat the winner he finished full of run.


Grade 1 Hollywood Derby: Gio Ponti and Court Vision already know each other very well. They’ve knocked heads before and there’s very little between them. The 1 1/4 miles of this turf race could be the difference. Court Vision acts as if this may be his preferred distance. Trainer Bill Mott was reportedly thinking about taking on the big boys in the BC Turf with this guy, before self restraint got the better of him. Gio Ponti certainly handles the 1 1/4 miles, but could it be he’s maybe more comfortable from a mile to 1 1/8 miles? Then you toss in Winchester, monster winner of the Grade 1 Secretariat at 1 1/4 miles. He comes off a seventh going 1 1/2 miles in the BC Turf, his first start since the mid-August Secretariat. Could it be the BC Turf will actually serve as a prep for the Hollywood Derby? His trainer, Dermot Weld, had Dress to Thrill a few years ago run so-so in the BC Mile before she won the Matriarch.

Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood: A marvelous renewal of this race. You have Precious Kitten, who for a moment looked as if she might win the BC Mile when she took the lead into the lane, finishing fourth. You have Visit, who for a moment looked as if she might win the BC Filly and Mare Turf when she cut the corner into the lane and surged to the lead. She just didn’t stay the trip. You have Cocoa Beach, who briefly looked threatening to unbeaten monster Zenyatta when second in the BC Ladies’ Classic and who is a turf winner. Toss in multiple graded stakes winner Black Mamba and you have a terrific race.

It’s incredibly hard to separate Precious Kitten, Cocoa Beach, and Visit. Cocoa Beach is quite capable and Precious Kitten makes her final career start. Visit, however, may be the up-and-comer. The Euro transplant follows a mode of success – race in Europe for Juddmonte, then come to Bobby Frankel and flourish in the U.S.