On Track with Johnny D: How the West is Won

It’s time for a few of the best sophs in the West to show us what they’ve got in Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. In the first 2017 3-year-old conflict of import, John Shirreff’s Gormley and Bob Baffert’s American Anthem traded haymakers through the Arcadia lane in the Sham Stakes Jan. 7.

That seems eons ago and, despite nationwide sophs vaulting with bullets to number one rankings and then soon retreating injured or defeated, we haven’t seen a California-based headliner in the afternoon since.

San Vicente winner Iliad could be considered an exception, but that Feb. 12 race was at seven furlongs and worth zero points toward entry in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Another Shirreffs-trained Kentucky Derby contender Royal Mo, winner of the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita eight days earlier, ultimately may be ‘one of the ones,’ but it’s difficult to tell because West Coast data is so limited. In the Lewis, Royal Mo finished immediately in front of Doug O’Neill-trained Irap–a bit of an oddity as a multiple graded stakes-placed maiden!

The wait for a measure of clarity ends Saturday, as three top West Coast runners tangle in the Grade II, $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. They are Iliad, Gormley and the Bob Baffert-trained Mastery.

Between them they have won a total of 8 of 10 starts (one loss first out at Del Mar in December by Iliad, and the other in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by Gormley), five graded stakes (including 2 Grade 1s) and roughly three-quarters of a million dollars. For these reasons and many more, a spot in the San Felipe winner’s circle clearly runs through them.

Favoritism likely will go to unbeaten Mastery, Bob Baffert’s newest Kentucky Derby model. The Great White Father also has American Anthem on the Louisville trail. That one is headed toward Arkansas in next Saturday’s Rebel at Oaklawn, but Mastery, so far, is the apple of the trainer’s Derby eye. Hammered to 30 cents-to-the-dollar or less in each of three starts, Mastery blitzed SoCal foes in a maiden race at Santa Anita (six furlongs), the Grade 3 Bob Hope at Del Mar (seven furlongs) and the Grade 1 Futurity at Los Alamitos (mile and one-sixteenth), all in less than three months!

For one moment, think about that. In less time than it takes you to experience Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the then 2-year-old colt won three races, including two graded stakes, at distances from six furlongs to a mile and one-sixteenth, by an average margin of 4 lengths each! No other animal chasing glory on the first Saturday in May can claim such accelerated achievement.

Now, that’s all fine and good. But Thoroughbred racing is a game of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ and we haven’t seen Mastery racing in the afternoon since Dec. 10–two days after the celebration of feast of the Immaculate Conception, or, for non-believers, the anniversary of the day the United States entered World War II.

Where’s he been? Resting and then training under the Baffert shedrow, which, these days, is a bit like suiting up for the Lady Huskies five. If there’s a championship on the line, Baffert’s got one in the game.

Since his last race, Mastery has had recorded eight workouts, all at Santa Anita, from three furlongs (first work 19 days after his last race) to seven-eighths of a mile. Four works earned a ‘bullet’ each as the day’s fastest at the distance. Do yourself a favor and visit XBTV.com and search the ‘Workouts’ section for Mastery. Watch how the colt, in typical Bob Baffert-fashion, is asked to ‘gallop out’ or to continue past the finish and around the clubhouse turn, effectively extending each workout more than a quarter-mile at a decent clip.

In the San Felipe, the racing gods did Mastery no favors by drawing both main challengers outside of him in the starting gate. All three have speed. And that could present Mastery’s Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith with an immediate and intriguing dilemma: Rush the colt out of the gate and risk foes pressuring him from the outside or take back and surrender the lead to Gormley, Iliad or both?

In our experience, Baffert runners rarely give ground. Expect Mastery and Smith to make everyone else run their hearts out to beat him—early and late. Of course, lots will depend on the break and isn’t that why we load them into the starting gate in the first place?

To see what will happen, and, specifically, in this case, how the West is won.

A Winning Shade of Grey

Around the first of the year, Diane Grey made an important decision: In Xpressbet’s upcoming $50,000 Beat the Host competition, instead of shooting for a share of any of eight $2,500 weekly prizes, she would aim to win the $5,000 Sweep the Host bonus–awarded to any single player who defeats all eight hosts in as many weeks.

Ultimately, that determination proved critical because it dictated Grey’s overall wagering strategy. “Playing head-to-head is different than trying to win a tournament outright,” she explained. “Each host has a certain style, personality, strength and weakness. I looked for where they were vulnerable.”

Each Saturday in January and February, Diane Grey submitted live, single, $5 wagers on one horse in each of eight mandatory races. And, each week, her total earnings exceeded the host’s.

In the first two weeks, Grey and 120 others survived Horseplayernow.com’s Jeremy Plonk ($0) and Brian Nadeau ($34), respectively. However, in the next three weeks, the water got considerably deeper. Santa Anita morning line maker Jon White ($56) culled the Sweep the Host candidate herd to just 15, and the next week XBTV.com expert Jeff Siegel ($42) trimmed the list to merely five. At the Races radio host Steve Byk ($59), the most proficient host, knocked the number of live Sweep the Host players down to just a pair: Diane Grey and Robert Wheeler.

XBTV host Millie Ball ($6.50) failed to eliminate either player, but Santa Anita simulcast handicapper, VIP Concierge and Southern California paddock tweeter Tom Quigley ($47) picked off Wheeler.

Into the final week of competition Grey was alone atop the heap and headed for a showdown with NBC Sports analyst and Xpressbet spokesperson Eddie Olczyk.

Already guaranteed a $2,000 consolation payoff for surviving longer than any other player, Grey didn’t rest on her laurels. She topped Olczyk’s $31 total to collect the $5,000 prize.

“I saw a tweet, maybe from TDN (Thoroughbred Daily News), that said Unified had blown out through the stretch on the morning of the race. That was Jimmy Jerkens going ‘old school,’ like his father and I liked that.” Unified won the Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes and returned $16.50, based on a $5 win wager to put Grey ahead of Olczyk to stay.

Grey, 60, resides in Prairie Village, Kansas and is a legal assistant at a large law firm. As a child in the Midwest she was a 4H pony-loving girl, but didn’t catch the racing bug until 1980 when she and friend Nicole Carter frequented Hollywood Park. There, Nicole met and married the late actor, horse owner and breeder John Forsythe, a regular at Hollywood and Santa Anita.

Grey describes her handicapping process as one that relies mainly on speed, class and trainer intent. She lists ‘third race off the layoff’ as one of her favorite angles.

It’s never easy to win a handicapping tournament and even the best players admit that luck is critical to any winning run. However, when a handicapping achievement spans eight weeks, Lady Luck takes a backseat to good old, nuts and bolts handicapping prowess. Or, in this case, a winning shade of Grey!

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: How the West is Won

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