Friday, April 1, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Gulfstream

--Brian DiDonato

I expect three-for-three It’s Tricky to emerge from Saturday’s GII Gulfstream Park Oaks as the best 3-year-old dirt filly in the country. While the horses she has beaten in New York have admittedly been suspect, the way in which she has beaten them and the room for improvement she exhibits hint that she is ready for a breakout performance. The Darley runner’s eight-length Busher S. romp last time was quite visually impressive. She accelerated away from her outclassed foes with ease while barely being asked and struggling slightly with her lead changes. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin reported on Steve Byk’s "At The Races" radio program Wednesday that It’s Tricky has continued to mature and improve since shipping down to join his Palm Meadows-based string about three weeks ago, suggesting that she will be even better and much less green in the GP Oaks.

It's Tricky    (c) Horsephotos
I’m also not sure that the 88 Beyer Speed Figure It’s Tricky officially received for the Busher will prove to be an accurate representation of her performance, as the preliminary number came back significantly higher, suggesting that it was a difficult day to make figures. Quiet Giant, who took the eight-furlong Rare Treat S. for older fillies and mares a few races before the Busher, is the best measuring stick with which to evaluate the day’s route figures. The Pletcher trainee has run four times on the Aqueduct inner this year: Dec. 12 in the sloppy-track Cheap Seats S. (8 3/4-length win, 92 Beyer); Jan. 16 in the Lady on the Run S. (three-length win, 96 Beyer); Feb. 20 in the Rare Treat (nine-length win, 88 Beyer); and Mar. 26 in the Ladies H. (2nd beaten 3/4 of a length, 93 Beyer). It’s clear which figure out of that group is the outlier.

It’s Tricky’s main foe in the GP Oaks will obviously be expected favorite R Heat Lightning, who turned in a performance in the GII Davona Dale that was drastically better than anything she had run previously. Her 16-point new Beyer top could be explained by improvement from ages two to three after a rough trip to kick off the year, but seems almost too good to be believed until she reproduces it. Furthermore, R Heat Lightning is unlikely to repeat her Davona Dale run at the increased distance of 1 1/8 miles, while It’s Tricky should be at her best going at least this long. R Heat Lightning is by Trippi, a seven-furlong specialist (he did take the GIII Flamingo over the GP Oaks track and trip, however) whose progeny tend to favor sprints/mile events, and she is out of a lightly raced mare who never traveled beyond seven furlongs. R Heat Lightning’s full-sister Hot Trip is a winner and stakes-placed at 1 1/16 miles, but was never sent farther. It’s Tricky, on the other hand, is by Classic distance runner and Horse of the Year Mineshaft, out of Tale of the Cat mare Catboat, who took the GIII Arlington Park Breeders’ Cup Oaks at 1 1/8 miles. Look for It’s Tricky to pull off the minor upset Saturday, and appear atop many pundits’ Kentucky Oaks rankings on Monday.

The complexion of Sunday’s GI Florida Derby changed drastically when the connections of GII Hutcheson S. winner Flashpoint elected to stretch out their flashy speedster, rather than run in the GII Swale earlier on the card. The talented son of Grade I-winning sprinter Pomeroy out of a multiple sprint stakes-winning mare will, if nothing else, ensure a hot pace, even if tactical routers like Soldat, To Honor and Serve and Arch Traveler lack the early foot to keep up with him. Flashpoint hasn’t necessarily proven he can’t stretch out to nine furlongs and, if he builds up a big enough edge turning for home, could give his foes a scare. Flashpoint’s path after the Derby might have the greatest impact on the sophomore scene. If he goes to the Derby--which is no guarantee, regardless of his placing in the Florida Derby, according to owner John Fort--he will dramatically hinder the chances of other speed horses, most notably The Factor.

Soldat will also be tested in the Florida Derby. He has proven he can rate on turf, but his well-received score in the GII Fountain of Youth may have been partially aided by a speed-favoring strip and an easy pace. He has not demonstrated unequivocally that he is a true dirt router, and an added pace wrinkle may serve to expose him a bit.

To Honor and Serve    (c) EquiSport
The Florida Derby will also help to answer some major questions about To Honor and Serve. There are two ways to read his very flat third-place return performance in the Fountain of Youth. Either his good-looking stakes wins last term came under extremely advantageous circumstances and he was never as good as those situations made him look, or he was short off the bench with a much tougher trip than the winner and deserves a pass. I would not deny that To Honor and Serve’s GII Nashua score came when he was loose on a very soft pace (he did still kick home impressively), but the Mott trainee’s Remsen--at the Florida Derby distance--featured fast early splits according to the pace figures, and his trip in the Fountain of Youth was less than desirable. Fellow Mott trainee Unrivaled Belle’s performance pattern last year hints that To Honor and Serve could be much better in his second start at three. In both of her second off the layoff performances last term, the four-year-old was much-improved, taking the GI Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic off a dull run in the GI Beldame to cap off 2010. After firing a five-furlong bullet at Palm Meadows Mar. 27, I am cautiously optimistic that To Honor and Serve will return with a much-improved performance.

After one of those "you had to see it" winning debuts at Churchill Downs in November, Dialed In justified the hype with another visually impressive score in the GIII Holy Bull S. Fearing that the gap between that Jan. 30 race and the Florida Derby was too long, conditioner Nick Zito opted to give his runner a tune-up in a track-and-trip optional claimer Mar. 6. The 2-5 chalk couldn’t get up over his older, unaccomplished stablemate, but that should be little cause for concern. The pace that day was significantly below par and, in an era where every loss by a stakes horse is treated as disaster, it must be remembered that Dialed In’s allowance run was no more than an afternoon workout. He is the only true closer in the race, and Dialed In should win if To Honor and Serve doesn’t bounce back.

Check back early next week for a wrap-up of these races. . .


Gary King said...

A very insightful read as always. You have really pinned your colours to the mast! I'm sure it will be an interesting weekend of racing, either way. Who do you fancy for the Golden Slipper?

Brian said...

Can't say that I know which "colour" to pin to the mast in the Golden Slipper.

Anonymous said...

Plain and simple! I like your work!