08/19/2007 11:00PM

Tough to explain Student Council's win


NEW YORK - It isn't as if absolutely no one liked Student Council. Jerry Brown of Thoro-Graph liked him enough specifically with Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar in mind to recommend his new owners purchase him. And if that's how the head of Thoro-Graph felt about him, then it follows that at least a few of Thoro-Graph's betting clients must have, too, which could explain why Student Council paid only $48.80 after winning the Pacific Classic instead of $148.80. But other than perhaps the isolated fanatic who has a thing for underachieving 5-year-old sons of Kingmambo, that would be about it for Student Council's fan club.

For the rest of us, it's hard to make a case for Student Council, even after the Pacific Classic. He had never competed at a level higher than a Grade 3 stakes, and the best he ever did there was second in the Razorback Handicap last March. Sure, Student Council had won half of his four Polytrack starts, all in Kentucky, and Polytrack is the new surface at Del Mar. But those two wins were an entry-level allowance at Turfway Park and a second-level allowance at Keeneland last fall. In his two most recent Polytrack starts, Student Council finished eighth of 12 in the Grade 3 Fayette Handicap and fourth of nine in an optional claimer, both at Keeneland. He did have a wide trip in at least one of those races, and Thoro-Graph upgrades the performances of horses who race wide. Then again, racing wide so that you're away from the kickback might be the best way to go on Polytrack, but this is a debate for another time.

One could claim that Student Council, who arrived in his new California home mere days before the Pacific Classic, capitalized on an unusually weak West Coast older male division. But the fact is, since Invasor retired, the older male division all over the country has been exposed as weak.

Perhaps the best way to rationalize Student Council's upset is to accept that there is no real way to rationalize it. This was just one of those wacky results that happen from time to time in races of all stripes. As a contributing factor, it was run on a synthetic surface that seems to play havoc with form. Although he was sent off at 6-5, there were concerns about Lava Man handling Polytrack, which is different from the Cushion Track he handled at Hollywood Park. Lava Man operates close to the early lead, and for the most part speed gets swallowed going long on Polytrack. So while Lava Man might not be what he used to be, it's too early to shovel dirt on him off his tired sixth-place finish Sunday.

Nafzger does it again

Trainer Carl Nafzger reminded the whole world last May of how good he is at pointing a capable horse to a specific goal when he guided Street Sense to become the first horse in 24 years to win the Kentucky Derby off only two prep races at 3. And ever since Street Sense was nailed by Curlin in the Preakness, Nafzger has been pointing the colt to Saturday's Travers Stakes, in which he will be heavily favored. Last Saturday, Nafzger did it again, taking Saratoga's Alabama Stakes with Lady Joanne.

Lady Joanne proved what a capable filly she is in June in the Mother Goose Stakes. She was narrowly beaten that day by Octave when it appeared to me that her jockey, Calvin Borel, actually waited too long to set her down into a drive. In any case, that performance from Lady Joanne - who from that day forward was pointed to the Alabama - looked all the better when Octave came back to win the CCA Oaks.

A victory over three overmatched opponents in an overnight stakes race early in the Saratoga meet and two breezes had Lady Joanne ready for what turned out to be a bitterly fought renewal of the Alabama. After tracking the early pace from close range, Lady Joanne faced challenges in the stretch from Octave on her inside and Lear's Princess from her outside. Thanks in no small part to Nafzger's preparation, she had the fortitude to meet them both.

But even after the Alabama was over, it wasn't over. The stewards took a long look at how Lady Joanne, under strong right handed pressure, came in slightly to tighten things on the rail for Octave. The stewards finally decided, in a call that has since generated a lot of discussion, to let the results stand.

While I'm no steward, it has always seemed to me that the best rule of thumb for adjudicating inquires and foul claims is to determine whether the horse in question cost another horse, or horses, a legitimate shot at a bigger piece of the purse. In this case, Lady Joanne did make things tight on the rail for Octave and jockey John Velazquez. And while Velazquez never stopped riding when things got tight, I'm not so sure he was able to ride as aggressively as he would have if he had had a little more room.

What made this call so difficult is that Octave weakened in the late stages and finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Lear's Princess, who was just a neck behind Lady Joanne at the wire. If Octave was, say, only a neck behind Lear's Princess at the finish, then a good case could have been made that Lady Joanne's actions might well have cost Octave a bigger piece of the purse. But considering the gap between Lear's Princess and Octave at the wire, the stewards made the proper decision. It would be a complete guess to say Octave would have been close to Lear's Princess at the finish if Velazquez had been able to ride as hard as he could. And no one wants stewards to make calls based on conjecture.