02/25/2008 12:00AM

Two Santa Anita races to remember


During the recent period of track problems and world records on Santa Anita's Cushion Track, a genuinely remarkable race occurred, and it should not be lost in the myriad performances judged too good to be believed. On reflection, this singular performance looks very strong, and if so, it should be repeated on March 1 in the Grade 1, $1omillion Santa Anita Handicap.

The date was Feb. 2, the final program before the original Cushion Track was swept away during a five-day renovation, and the race was the Grade 2 Strub Stakes - the most telltale race limited to new 4-year-olds, not only in Southern California but also for national purposes. At 1 1/8 miles, the Strub often reveals whether any of the new 4-year-olds might become a force in the 4-and-up handicap division. And what a force this year's Strub winner - Monterey Jazz - should be.

A 5.90-1 overlay shifting from turf to Cushion Track, Monterey Jazz led wire to wire in a rarefied world of his own. When the actual times were converted to speed and pace figures, it was a combination that had not been seen among new 4-year-olds in recent memory. With par at 112, the speed and pace figures are:

HorsePaceSpeedRace shape

Monterey Jazz120115Fast-Fast

Only the best handicap horses in the nation can deliver this kind of performance, and 3-year-olds almost never do. It was four lengths faster than par for the first six furlongs - two points equals one length at the pace call - and three lengths faster than par for 1 1/8 miles. Keep in mind that Monterey Jazz is a young 4-year-old. An upside remains possible for him, even tenable.

Figure analysts inclined to distrust all that occurred on Santa Anita's original Cushion Track might consider that the daily track variant for the routes of Feb. 2 was an astonishing fast-18 (nine lengths) at the pace call, and fast-11 at the wire. That means no fewer than 11 lengths were subtracted from Monterey Jazz's unadjusted speed figure and nine lengths were subtracted from the raw pace figure. The sprint variant on that afternoon was fast-7.

After the adjustments had been applied, no other performance on the Cushion Track approached that of Monterey Jazz. In the other route, for supposedly better horses, the winner rated six lengths slower than Monterey Jazz at the wire and no fewer than 10 lengths slower at the pace call. The 120 pace figure is dazzling, and it sets Monterey Jazz apart from the pack.

By comparison, a week later the traditional prep for the Santa Anita Handicap was carded: the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap, also at 1 1/8 miles, but for 4-year-olds and up. The card was the first following the renovation of the track, and to push the comparison on this day the route variant was a conventional fast-2, and the track surface was even at the pace call. The winner's figures look like this (par is 113):

Horse PaceSpeedRace shape

Well Armed106113Slow-Average

Well Armed also led wire to wire, but barely survived despite a sluggish pace. Well Armed will be off to Dubai for the $6omillion Dubai World Cup, but if he had stayed and met with Monterey Jazz on the front end of the Big Cap, Well Armed would have been fortunate to finish in the top half of the field. In that context, handicappers might appreciate that the San Antonio's rallying runner-up, Heatseeker, would have won in another jump.

A Giant's Causeway 5-year-old, Heatseeker was flying and almost overhauled the winner after a pace unusually slow for such a serious Grade 2 race. Heatseeker's performance was stunning against the race shape, and he qualifies as the prerace choice to wind up on the underside of the Big Cap exacta - behind Monterey Jazz.

The Quirin-style speed figure of 115 assigned to Monterey Jazz in the Strub should equal a 113 on the Beyer Speed Figure scale. But the Beyer associates assigned Monterey Jazz a mere 107, a three-length discrepancy. The discrepancy is a function of extreme variants. The conventional deviation from par (or projected times) is plus or minus three lengths. The greater the deviations, the grosser the errors. Although extreme, the Beyer route variant of Feb. 2 at Santa Anita was not as great as slow-11.

Still, in races longer than a mile, the 107 Beyer assigned Monterey Jazz ranks as the third-highest Beyer so far this year. By any standard of speed handicapping, it was a powerful performance. When Monterey Jazz's pace figure is factored in, it was a remarkable performance.

Less remarkable but also impressive was another Grade 2 winner at Santa Anita, a 3-year-old in a seven-furlong sprint on the renovated Cushion Track. In the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 10, the field of four contained three Grade 1 winners - and what happened could not have been anticipated. With par at 109 or thereabouts, examine the speed and pace figures of the race and the winner, Georgie Boy.

Horse or race PaceSpeedRace shape

San Vicente95111Slow-Fast

Georgie Boy90111

Lagging two to three lengths behind an extraordinarily slow pace for Grade 1 winners and race co-favorites Into Mischief and Massive Drama, Georgie Boy should have had no chance of catching those front-runners in the stretch. But Georgie Boy dug in and passed those colts with an amazing display of late speed. Visually, the performance was dazzling. Georgie Boy inhaled his rivals by the sixteenth pole, and drew away effortlessly. The lofty Beyer Figure of 105, following the milk-wagon pace, confirms that the finish was just as powerful as it looked.

Georgie Boy is a 3-year-old gelding - no multimillion-dollar pre-Derby offers will be tendered for this Cal-bred - and he has yet to stretch out. But if he can maintain his fabulous finish around two turns, he will sail to the top of the 3-year-old division nationwide, right alongside War Pass and Pyro. And until beaten, Georgie Boy heads the division in Southern California, giving trainer Kathy Walsh probably her best horse ever.

The San Vicente cannot be encouraging for the near future of Into Mischief and Massive Drama. Georgie Boy swept by both of those graded winners with ease. Leading 3-year-olds should be allowed one failure, but the inability of Into Mischief and Massive Drama to run faster than they did following such a tardy pace does not bode well for them in the Santa Anita Derby, not to mention the Kentucky Derby.

An underrated aspect of the handicapping of stakes races and the stakes horses that reappear in them occurs with the turn of the calendar every year.

Two-year-olds turning 3 should improve. Three-year-olds turning 4 should improve. To a lesser degree, 4-year-olds turning 5 should improve.

But many instead will decline.

If stakes stars have declined in the new year by more than two lengths, abandon them, absolutely so at low prices.

Handicappers with pace figures can follow a similar guideline. A slowdown early by more than two lengths should be followed by a strong finish. If it's not, abandon the horse.

Year after year the guideline produces a valuable source of overlays. Many bettors support the stakes stars regardless of them tailing off, and the majority of them will lose.