It’s that time of year again, when handicappers toss aside the disappointments of last spring and savor the pleasure of a fresh start on the Derby trail, when the horse who could win the Triple Crown is all unblemished potential. Lists appear like croci — every 3-year-old could be the one.
I’ll be adding to the list-mania, beginning next week, when the Paulick Derby Index returns for its third season, and one question preoccupies me as I consider who’s a top 10 Kentucky Derby contender — what to do with California sophomores such as Tapizar, wire-to-wire winner of the Sham Stakes? The hard new surface lauded as being similar to Churchill Downs’ deep dirt in the first days of training last December is turning out dazzling times that are anything but Churchill-like. Sand added to the track last week slowed things down a little, but front-runners retained their edge, and on Thursday, a $10,000 claimer named Self Insured ran a mile in 1:34. That’s quick.
It all makes me a bit nostalgic for the synthetic surface. The new surface is so kind to speed, it makes me doubtful it’s doing much for stamina.
So, was the horseplayers’ boycott a success before it even began? I was among those who thought that anticipation for the first day of racing at Santa Anita in eight months and pent-up dirt demand would lead to a surge in opening day handle. That’s not what happened. From every angle (opening day last year, the last opening day on Sunday, the last opening day with a dirt track), handle was down across the board. Compared to 2009, attendance was off 4% (from 35,292 to 34,268), on-track handle down 15% (from $4,531,236 to $3,851,594) and total handle down 21.5% (from $14,913,953 to $11,707,276). Several factors surely affected the numbers: The track ran nine races this year, 10 in 2009; all the turf races were moved to the main track; there was no handle from now-closed NYC OTB; rain in California and snow on the East Coast may have kept some bettors away. But it also seems likely that a notable percentage of players held back bets, whether to protest the takeout increase or to watch how the reconstructed surface performed.
Santa Anita gave a brave spin to the day’s numbers, issuing a press release in which track president George Haines said, “I think it’s safe to say that we again demonstrated in a very profound way that our fans will continue to support Santa Anita in a big way on our big days. We’re very hopeful we can build on the momentum we generated today and carry it through the entire meet.” That might be difficult, if there are too many cards like Wednesday’s nine-race 61-horse line-up ahead. For comparison, Tampa drew 100+.
The new track looked like the Santa Anita dirt of old on Sunday, with California speed back in style and favorites winning four of nine races (and finishing in the money in eight of nine). “Southern California racing has been a soap opera the past few years,” writes Jay Privman. “Sunday made it feel even more so, as if the past three years at Santa Anita, under a controversial synthetic surface, had merely been a dream.” Trainer Bob Baffert, who might be more inclined to call the past three years a nightmare, was in the winner’s circle after the fourth race, posing next to a freakishly fast 2-year-old named The Factor. “If he’d have lost today, I would have quit training,” said Baffert. Going gate-to-wire, as did the winners of all three six furlong races on the card, The Factor set a new track record of 1:06.98 for the distance while winning a maiden special by 8 1/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite, his time good for a Beyer speed figure of 102. Switch, the first of trainer John Sadler’s three stakes winners on the day, bested the stakes time of 1:20.45 posted by Mamselle Bebette in 1993 by winning the G1 La Brea Stakes in 1:20.33. Twirling Candy, finishing a nose in front of Smiling Tiger, broke the track record of 1:20 for seven furlongs set by Spectacular Bid in 1980 by winning the G1 Malibu Stakes in 1:19.70. That the Bid’s record was in danger was anticipated early in the day, and not with much joy. “I kind of have a problem with that,” said one of the house handicappers on the track’s feed, talking about Santa Anita’s decision to restore the old dirt track records, ignoring the differences in the surfaces and the synthetic interlude, and I kind of agreed. Twirling Candy is no Spectacular Bid, even if he — like Sir Beaufort winner Sidney’s Candy — is now an Omnisurface Star.
1:45 PM Addendum: Jay Hovdey posts re: Sunday’s lickety-splits: “Meanwhile, up in his booth at the top of the stretch, track superintendent Rich Tedesco was banging his head against the desktop, knowing full well that too fast is just plain too fast when it comes to protecting the frail infrastructure of the Thoroughbred racehorse from his own natural instincts to flee. He also knows that horses like Spectacular Bid don’t come along every 30 years.”
… welcome back front-runners to a surface that track project manager Ted Malloy expects will reward fast horses.
“A fast track, if it’s not tiring, is always speed-favoring,” Malloy said.
“I must have worked 20-something horses that first week and 20-something the second, and the track was fast,” she said. “Like holy guacamole fast.”
“This track is going to be very good. It will probably be a little speed biased. I think dirt handicappers are going to love it.”