11/20/2016 12:02PM

Watchmaker: Still more great things from 2-year-old class

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As noted in this space last week about the strongly run Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by Classic Empire and Not This Time, there is much optimism for this year’s class of 2-year-old males. More encouraging signs came Saturday in stakes victories from Mastery and Gunnevera.

Mastery, a most eye-catching debut winner at Santa Anita just two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, won the Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar, a springboard to the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 10. Mastery was supposed to win the Bob Hope. He was 1-5. So it says something about Mastery that he also managed to impress.

Mastery absolutely toyed with runner-up California Diamond through the stretch run of the Bob Hope. The official win margin was 1 1/4 lengths, but it would have been significantly larger if Mastery had been asked to run. The thing that was most striking about the stretch run of the Bob Hope, however, was the contrasting profiles of the two protagonists.

California Diamond might not be the second coming of Hindoo, but he had seven starts before Saturday; he won five, four of which were stakes, including three straight stakes scores. California Diamond had all the seasoning that Mastery lacked, and yet Mastery performed through the stretch as though he’s been doing this racing thing forever.

If there is one caveat regarding Mastery’s victory Saturday, it was that the pace he set was slow – in fact, the slowest of the five main-track races on the Del Mar card - and by a significant margin. But there are a couple of points that might mitigate the slow fractions. For one, even though he was in front, Mastery still shut himself off, which I take as a strong indicator that he will successfully rate off the early lead.

The other consideration is how Mastery finished. If he didn’t finish well after that slow pace, then there wouldn’t be nearly as much to get excited about. But Mastery went his seventh and final furlong in 11.61 seconds, which is fast, and strongly suggests stretching out will be no issue for him.

Gunnevera’s win in the Delta Downs Jackpot was more of an “in your face” performance. He lagged early off a fairly strong but contested pace, and overwhelmed his field with a move at least five wide on the far turn that eventually carried him to the lead and then on to a near six-length romp.

Gunnevera’s Delta Jackpot was flashy, but it is important to put his effort in some context. Gunnevera was the only member of the 10-horse field to have won a graded stakes race (he won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special in August), and he was also the only one in the field to have prior Grade 1 stakes experience (he finished fifth in Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity in his most recent outing).

That said, one of the several things to like about Classic Empire even before he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is he won the Breeders’ Futurity despite stretching out to two turns for the first time in his first representative start in three months; I’m not counting his Hopeful appearance, when he wheeled coming out of the gate as the favorite as a representative outing. It should be noted that Gunnevera was in a similar position when he ran in the Breeders’ Futurity.

The Breeders’ Futurity was Gunnevera’s first start in two months, and it was also his first start around two turns. He wasn’t able to overcome those hurdles the way Classic Empire did. Gunnevera was put to a heavy drive on the far turn at Keeneland, yet he gave a little ground and position through the Breeders’ Futurity stretch run. But while that says Gunnevera has quite a bit of improving to do before he can be considered on the same level as Classic Empire, the outing in the Breeders’ Futurity worked perfectly for Gunnevera in the context of the Delta Jackpot.

Unfortunately, the 2-year-old filly division this year hasn’t been as compelling as the juvenile males has been, but that may begin to change after the smashing victory from Shane’s Girlfriend in the Delta Downs Princess Stakes one race before the Jackpot.

Shane’s Girlfriend, a romping if surprising (she was 8-1 in a field of nine) debut winner at Santa Anita late last month, shipped and stretched out for the Princess, and ran off to score by just over 13 lengths. Now, it must be noted that there was not one graded stakes winner among the nine opponents she crushed Saturday, yet I still feel Shane’s Girlfriend upstaged Gunnevera.

The Princess was run at a mile, the Jackpot was at 1 1/16 miles; that’s close enough to make pace comparisons. When you do, you’ll find the Princess’s pace was faster to the first quarter (23.06 to 23.18) and substantially faster to the three-quarter mark (1:11.71 to 1:12.52). Shane’s Girlfriend did what she did being right on top of that faster early pace, a pace that was actually the strongest sustained pace (emphasis on the word sustained) all day at Delta, and all day at Delta Saturday was 11 races.

And for the record, Shane’s Girlfriend completed her mile in 1:37.98. Gunnevera got his mile in 1:38.64. Yes, I know Gunnevera had another sixteenth to go after that mile split, but he certainly wasn’t speeding up late, even if he was drawing away.