03/01/2010 1:00AM

Sham Stakes may reveal real deal


ARCADIA, Calif. - The notebook this week is full of 3-year-old stuff, including the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita. And it starts like this . . . .

* Nextdoorneighbor and Setsuko will vie for favoritism in the Sham, and it's a toss-up which colt has a better chance of emerging as a true Derby prospect. But in Saturday's soft-paced Sham, the tactical speed of Nextdoorneighbor gives him the edge.

* Saturday is my last day to brag about 150-1 Kentucky Derby future odds on Setsuko. But if he wins the Sham, or runs well, maybe you will read about it one more time, and then, maybe just once or twice after that.

* The nickname for Nextdoorneighbor at trainer Mike Machowsky's stable is "Boyfriend," as in the most physically attractive 3-year-old in the barn. Now all Nextdoorneighbor needs is four more wins including a graded stakes to catch his more accomplished stablemate Caracortado.

* The knock on Nextdoorneighbor is his four-length maiden win last time out came at the expense of an apparently weak field. Three horses he beat returned to finish off the board, while last-place finisher Broken Tango returned to finish second in a low-rated race.

* Nextdoorneighbor is owned by John Amerman, whose Grade 1-winning mare Balance recently produced a colt by Street Cry. Balance is a half-sister to Zenyatta, which makes the Street Cry-Balance weanling closely related to Zenyatta. Hope he can run.

* Are jockey agents turning soft? Mike Machowsky said not one agent has contacted him regarding the mount on unbeaten Caracortado, whose rider Paul Atkinson has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Why hasn't a "name rider" called? "I think it's the respect jockeys have for [Atkinson], and the work he has done fighting for jockey rights," Machowsky said. It helps that Atkinson has not made a mistake in five wins on Caracortado, and also that Atkinson is one of racing's good guys who everyone pulls for.

* One of the final phone interviews conducted by late turf writer Larry Bortstein was with Atkinson in late December in the Santa Anita press box, days after Caracortado won his first stakes. Bortstein passed away Jan. 31 at age 67, and Santa Anita hosted a classy memorial service Wednesday evening for the late turf writer. It was nice to hear Bortstein eulogized by turf-writer colleagues Bill Christine, Jerry Antonucci, Hank Wesch, and Art Wilson.

* Caracortado was sired by Cat Dreams. His dam, Mons Venus, will be bred this spring to Giant's Causeway in a foal-sharing agreement between Machowsky and Ashford Farm. When someone teased Machowsky about going from Cat Dreams to Giant's Causeway, Machowsky wondered, what's the big deal?

"Both Storm Cat lines," he deadpanned.

* Jockey Michael Baze was in a recent slump and phoned his mentor, a former jockey, to seek motivational advice. In muddled phone reception, the mentor confused Baze for a green apprentice new on the scene. Thinking he was speaking to the kid, the veteran jockey stated, "You should give up riding before you kill yourself or someone else." On the other end of the line, Baze was crestfallen, though he was not the intended subject of the criticism. So all Baze did was go out and win with two of his next five races.

* With each passing day and slow work, Lookin At Lucky seems farther behind schedule. Now there is talk about a comeback someplace other than Santa Anita. Lookin At Lucky worked six furlongs Feb. 22 in 1:15.40, slowest work of his career. Does he not like the Santa Anita surface?

"Everyone thinks he is [messed] up, but everything's good," Bob Baffert said Thursday. What about shipping to Oaklawn? "Lookin At Lucky, I think he's better on dirt," Baffert said. Meanwhile, it is 71 days since Lookin At Lucky started. The Derby clock is ticking.

* Evening Jewel, a nose behind Blind Luck in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, worked a super five furlongs on grass Wednesday, and it looks like turf is her deal. Trainer Jim Cassidy may skip a rematch with Blind Luck in the Santa Anita Oaks and wait for the Grade 2 Providencia Stakes on grass April 3.

* Speaking of Cassidy, The Usual Q.T. had his second work Wednesday since bleeding in the Sunshine Millions Classic. The Usual Q.T. worked five furlongs in 1:03.60, scoped clean afterward, and might be the one to beat March 6 in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile.

* Tibia injuries are the latest thing at Santa Anita. Impressive maiden winner Leothelion is out 60 days with the start of a tibia injury. G.I. Betty injured a tibia this week and is done. Trainer Barry Abrams said he recently stopped on 11 horses with tibia injuries.

* Meanwhile, a recent Thoroughbred Times story suggested that tracks with synthetic surfaces are faring better, based on wagering handle, than tracks with dirt. You could probably spin the synthetic story - pro or con - any way you choose to.

* Kelly Leak, winner of the productive 2009 Sunland Derby, is doing super as he nears a comeback. After a Feb. 18 five-furlong work, Handicapper's Report weekly wrote: "Kelly Leak was under big restraint throughout . . . never being allowed to run and a very good move for Kelly as he continues to train strongly toward his return."

* Are the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers not getting along? Thursday morning, a Santa Anita worker adjusted the TOC and CTT signage on the inside rail at the finish line. The worker moved the TOC sign to an easily viewed spot at the wire, replacing the CTT sign that was moved farther down the stretch. Is it innocent stuff? Or is behind-the-scenes bickering going on?