Handicapping Insights

HANDICAPPING INSIGHTS

BIG DRAMA (Montbrook) wound up winning the Eclipse Award Monday evening as the nation's best sprinter and rightfully so. He was a game winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) and the voters awarded him the honor over MAJESTICPERFECTION (Harlan's Holiday) based on a body of work that was far superior.

On Saturday, Big Drama made his 2011 seasonal debut in the Mr. Prospector S. (G3) going six furlongs at Gulfstream Park. Named after one of the fastest sprinters of all time, Mr. Prospector won his second career start at Gulfstream in an allowance race in 1:07 4/5. Even though blazing speed was his dominant characteristic and he was bred for speed as well, he wound up becoming one of America's top sires with winners in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness S. (G1) and Belmont S. (G1).

Big Drama won the Swale S. (G2) two years ago going seven furlongs in track-record time (but was disqualified for causing interference) then battled for the lead in the Preakness before going down to defeat by only five lengths. After just failing to last in the West Virginia Derby (G2) going nine furlongs when he opened up a huge lead, trainer David Fawkes decided to keep him sprinting and the results have been terrific.

At the age of four, Big Drama not only won the Breeders' Cup Sprint but the Smile Sprint H. (G2) at Calder. He was second in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. (G1) when he spotted the winner four pounds and the Forego S. (G1) when he stumbled badly at the start.

On Saturday, Big Drama was sent off as the 1-2 favorite in what looked like a two-horse race between him and CUSTOM FOR CARLOS (More Than Ready), who won this race last year. Eibar Coa sent Big Drama to the front and when he went the first quarter in :22.12, it seemed like the race was over. But, Julien Leparoux had other ideas when he drove Custom for Carlos up on the outside and for a brief moment at the top of the stretch looked like he might pull off the upset.

But, like all great horses, Big Drama had another gear and as quickly as Custom for Carlos challenged him, the race was suddenly over when he pulled away with authority to win by a widening four lengths. What was amazing about Big Drama's performance Saturday was his last quarter in :23.69 and his final time of 1:08.12 over a track that was not playing especially fast.

Not only was it a track record for the new Gulfstream Park, but he earned a monster BRIS speed rating of 117. It was extremely impressive objectively and subjectively and now Fawkes has to decide what to do next. He has the country's best sprinter but will he take his game to the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-G1) at Meydan? He has yet to race over a synthetic track, but the Tapeta main track at Meydan in Dubai is one of the best in the world and should not be a problem if that is where they wind up going.

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Earlier in the day, Gulfstream had one of its maiden special weight races for three-year-olds going seven furlongs that always attracts a terrific field this time of year. If you like pedigree handicapping, you had your hands full here as every starter had something to recommend him.

Robert LaPenta is a shrewd owner that buys yearlings for six figures but doesn't break the bank. He seems to like colts sired by sons of A.P. Indy, and for the past few years he had success with sons of Mineshaft. Now, his attention seems to have shifted to Bernardini.

Like most horses trained by Nick Zito, the horses owned by LaPenta are usually given time to mature and are not asked to go too fast too early. Zito, who only wins 7 percent with his first-time starters, showed up Saturday with HERON LAKE (Bernardini) who was making his career debut. Bought by LaPenta for only $140,000, he was the 33rd most expensive Bernardini yearling out of 40 sold in 2009. This was Bernardini's first crop at auction and his yearlings averaged $363,000 that year and this one fit the mold for LaPenta who buys at a modest level considering the sire's stud fee.

Even though Bernardini did not even race until his three-year-old season, he is siring 14 percent first-out winners from a stellar first crop of juveniles to race last year. Coupled with the fact that Heron Lake is out of a Storm Cat mare who is stakes-placed and a half-sister to two graded stakes winners going long. Storm Cat sires 17 percent first-out winners, so there was plenty of nature in Heron Lake's pedigree to offset the lack of nurture due to Zito's record with first-time starters.

My rule of thumb in this case is to give the horse with one or the other the advantage if they have nature and not nurture. But in this field, it was hard to isolate Heron Lake with the field he had to compete against. I wound up going with second-time starter Break up the Game (Bernardini), who just missed in his career debut at Aqueduct last November for Shug McGaughey.

The betting public made second-time starter Arch Traveler (Sky Mesa) the overbet 3-5 favorite off a good second last out, so everyone else was an overlay. Heron Lake wound up going off at 6-1, which was below his morning line and was the co-second choice, so there must have been some buzz about him. He pressed the pace right from the start and battled through the lane to hold off first-time starter Hammersmith (Johannesburg) to win by a head in 1:23.48. It might not have been the greatest time, but it was visually impressive and with a pedigree and trainer that screams "long," he could develop into a major horse this year and provide LaPenta with another horse that outruns his purchase price.

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TAPIZAR (Tapit) won his last start of 2010 at Churchill Downs during their "Stars of Tomorrow" when he broke his maiden in his fourth career start by 10 1/2 lengths in fast enough time to earn a BRIS Speed rating of 98. This year, Steve Asmussen has a string of horses racing at Santa Anita on the newly-installed dirt surface and Tapizar was brought out there to begin his preparations for the classics.

He showed good tactical speed in his prior starts, which made him a perfect fit for the "Arcadia Freeway" at Santa Anita. Sent off as the even-money favorite in the Sham S. (G3) with new rider Garrett Gomez, he gunned to the front and took command entering the backstretch. Gomez opened up a clear lead through a half in :45.25 and six furlongs in 1:08.83 without much effort. On any other main track, you would expect the horse setting this kind of pace to start backing up, but Tapizar just kept cruising along and after a mile in 1:33.74, he coasted to a four-length win in 1:40.38 and earned a BRIS Speed rating of 103.

How you judge this race going forward is very difficult, but if you ignore the final time and stick to the Speed rating, I think it was very legitimate. The fact that he ran a 98 last year and came out this year with a 103 makes a lot of sense. The difficulty will be did the track carry him along and how will he do when he gets on a deeper, tiring main track. For now, he probably won't have to answer that question since Asmussen can keep him at Santa Anita through the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in April.

by Dick Powell
from brisnet.com

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