06/24/2010 11:00PM

A time for thinking things globally


The last time the Australian star Scenic Blast suited up for battle, he was running for a purse of $1.5 million in the Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin last December. On Sunday, he heads the field for the $60,000 Robert K. Kerlan Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The last time California champ The Usual Q.T. was seen under silks, he was in the thick of things at Dubai's splashy new Meydan Race Course, digging hard for part of the $5 million jackpot offered in the Dubai Duty Free on the evening of March 27. On Sunday, earlier on the Hollywood program, he will be favored in an allowance race for a purse of $55,000.

Welcome to the bizarre, through-the-looking-glass world in which talented horses and their conflicted owners and trainers try to do business these days. As domestic prizes continue to contract, massive international purses still dangle on the distant horizons. Even the most timid practitioners of the Thoroughbred sport are tempted to fling inhibitions to the wind and fly to the far corners of the racing globe.

Scenic Blast was already a first-class world traveler before he landed in the John Shirreffs barn last fall, following a poor performance in Hong Kong. Australia's bleeder rules made the gelding a liability in his own backyard, on the brink of a lifetime ban, even though he had brought glory to Oz by winning the 2009 King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot to go along with his major victories at home. We'll see if breathing the same shed row air as Zenyatta has had a healing effect on Scenic Blast, and if it has, his white face and flashy markings could become a familiar sight in turf sprints leading to the Breeders' Cup.

The Usual Q.T. tiptoes quietly back into competition with a lot of lost ground to make up. A son of Unusual Heat, he was as reliable as sunrise last season at age 3, when he won his last six races, four of them stakes and one of them a very loaded version of the Hollywood Derby, at 10 furlongs. Battle of Hastings was second, and Acclamation, the hottest turf horse in California right now, finished third.

The Usual Q.T. was hailed as champion California-bred 3-year-old of 2009. That was nice, but now here he is, halfway through 2010 without a win to his name. In his first start of the year, The Usual Q.T. ran too fast too soon under regular rider Victor Espinoza in the Sunshine Millions Classic, contested on Santa Anita's synthetic main track, and finished up the track. His trainer, Jim Cassidy, shook it off as one of those days when nothing goes right and began making plans for a trip Dubai.

"He's been very keen like that before, but Victor has been able to get him covered up," Cassidy recalled this week from his Santa Anita headquarters. "That time he couldn't. I can't really blame it on the track."

As for his Dubai performance, The Usual Q.T. ran very well to be fourth of 16, over a course that was softened by rain. About the only moisture his feet had ever touched had been the occasional heavy dew on firm California grass.

"When California Flag couldn't get the lead earlier in the evening in his sprint on the grass, I knew we might be in trouble," Cassidy said.

At the end of the Duty Free's nine metric furlongs, The Usual Q.T. was beaten just five lengths by the stunning longshot Al Shemali. The winner proved he was no real fluke by coming back to be a close third in last month's Singapore International Airlines Cup.

"Yeah, I don't really remember how far he got beat for it all," Cassidy said. "I do remember the neck he got beat for third. It was worth a quarter-million dollars."

Third money in the Duty Free was $500,000 while fourth was half that. On Sunday, in addition to the $55,000 total purse, The Usual Q.T. is eligible for a share of the $16,500 bonus from the state's Cal-bred fund. But that's not really the point. Cassidy hopes the race will indicate that the 4-year-old version of The Usual Q. T. can take a place among the top middle distance turf horses on the coast, and go from there.

"Making a trip to Dubai like that, you do end up missing a lot of spots," Cassidy said. "But you've got to do these things at least once to see what you're up against. I was concerned about how he'd handle it because he'd never shipped before. But he was just a perfect gentleman. He acted better than when I ship him across town to Hollywood."

This is good information to have in hand as the second half of the season unfolds. But first, Cassidy must get the comeback under his belt.

"I was very pleased with the way he came back," Cassidy said. "I gave him a few weeks of doing nothing after we got home. Then after that he started jogging, and one day he pulled a shoe off. I think he tweaked himself a little because he had some muscle soreness in behind.

"We dealt with that, and he's been working well," Cassidy added. "So now I'm hoping the competitive edge is still there. He certainly acts like he's the same horse."