Saturday, July 4, 2009

Unsolicited advice for Arlington's Scott Becker

Scott Becker is a trainer at Arlington Park, and he doesn't know it, but I'm a fan of his. Well, a fan of one of his charges, that is.

Becker trains Wildwood Meadow, a "niece" of a mare I helped acquire in the winter/spring of 2008, Altona Marsh. ("Tuna" was rescued from a field of abandoned horses; a story for another time.)

For those not named "Scott Becker," since he already knows, Wildwood Meadow is 3-year-old by the late Meadowlake out of the Cozzene mare Cozzies Valay Girl. The gray or roan filly broke maiden at first asking last July at Arlington, but in unconventional fashion. Stumbling out of the gate, she "dropped out to last" and had to make up a lot of ground in a 5-furlong race -- and she did so, down the center of the synthetic main track, to get up by the slimmest of margins in the shadow of the wire. (video) ... A lot of adversity to overcome for a first-out 2-year-old.

Tested in stakes company her next out -- but over the conventional main track at Fairmount Park -- the results were not so positive. This time, Wildwood Meadow broke sharply and was near the front, but cashed it in mid-stretch and was nowhere to be seen at the end.

She took the fall and winter off, and returned slowly this spring with a quartet of workouts over that same dirt track at Fairmount. None were inspiring: 6f in 1:13.20; 6f in 1:15; 6f in 1:16.60; 5f in 1:02.80. (Though I do like seeing the filly worked 6 furlongs so often, considering many trainers just keep throwing 3-furlong blowouts at their charges and then expect them to run 6 furlongs or a mile without tiring.)

I presumed correctly that Wildwood Meadow would wake up when she got back on Arlington's synthetic surface, where her win was staged. And she did. Her first work there was a sharp 46.40 for 4 furlongs, and she backed that up by going 47.8 about two weeks later.

She didn't disappoint when sent back to the races, either, finishing a determined second in allowance company in both of her first two attempts at age 3. She broke sharply, stalked the pace and remained competitive throughout, and just didn't quite have what it took to win. (Comeback race video here.) So her third off the layoff yesterday looked like a good chance to clear that NW2L condition.

But Friday was a bust.

Sent out as the short-price favorite in an entry with City Royale, the pair of 3-year-olds were bested by a field of mostly older fillies. They came home a tiring fifth and sixth after being near the pace in fractions that were reasonable for the 6 1/2-furlong distance -- 23.63 for the quarter and 47.47 for the half.

This is where my unsolicited advice comes in: Take back with Wildwood Meadow at the start. And consider both more distance and trip to the turf.

Wildwood Meadow has now proven she can break sharply and vie for the lead. But she hasn't won that way. She won against the odds after being slow from the gate and having to bring her best run down the stretch. When not stumbling from the gate I'm not sure whether she'll rate, but let's find out.

As for distance and turf, I know that Meadowlake was never known for grass horses and he threw his share (or more) of sprinters: Wildcat Bettie B (Prioress S.-G1, 6f); Meadow Breeze (Matron S.-G1, 7f); Meadow Monster (General George H.-G2, 7f); fleet filly Meafara (2nd vs. males in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Sprint-G1, 6f). But he got his share of two-turn horses, too, including champion 2-year-old filly Meadow Star, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at a mile and a sixteenth, and the Mother Goose S.-G1 at 9 furlongs among nine graded wins, five at a mile or more, and Greenwood Lake, who won the Champagne S.-G1 (8.5f) and Remsen S.-G2 (9f) as a juvenile.

And if there's one thing to know about Wildwood Meadow's female family, it's that grass is for more than just munching.

Obviously her dam-sire, Cozzene, was a turf horse. In fact, the breeding of Meadowlake over a Cozzene mare led TVG's Rich Perloff to muse last year before that Fairmount stakes race that he was "not sure what they (the breeders John Wiseman and Candy Wiseman) were going for" in the mating.

Nevertheless, Scott, make note that while Wildwood Meadow's dam, Cozzies Valay Girl, broke her maiden going 6 furlongs on dirt, 12 of the last 13 races of her life were on grass and she won four of them: a Canterbury allowance at 7.5 furlongs; a Hawthorne allowance at a flat mile; and two at Fair Grounds, a mile and a sixteenth for a $30,000 tag and a mile for a $25,000 tag.

That's consistent with the performance of her dam, Valay Sphinx (Carnivalay-Amerrico's Sphinx, by Amerrico), who broke maiden on dirt (albeit going a mile and a sixteenth) for a $20K tag at Laurel, but eventually proved better on grass. After being claimed 11 races into her career, new connections put Valay Sphinx on the lawn and found a different horse; she improved by 14 points on the Brisnet speed figure charts and eventually won back-to-back allowances at a mile on grass at Delaware Park.

As for distance, Wildwood Meadow's second dam, Valay Sphinx, was a full sister to Ameri Valay, who twice won the Grade 3 John B. Campbell Handicap going a mile and three-sixteenths and was a stakes winner out to 10 furlongs. Third dam Silent Sphinx was a half-sister to Little Bold John (by John Alden), who won 38 of 105 lifetime starts for $1,956,405 including the Grade 2 Donn Handicap at 9 furlongs. His 26 stakes wins remain a Maryland-bred record, and he also placed in the Grade 2 Dixie Handicap -- a turf race, you'll note, which in those days was staged at a mile and a half.

So while Wildwood Meadow's sireline suggests dirt and potentially "short," I think that risks missing the turf course for the weeds.

Synthetic performance is sometimes (oftentimes?) translating to grass form. And while she was described as "tired" at 6 1/2 furlongs Friday, there's more than enough evidence on the dam's side of her pedigree to believe she can go two turns if conditioned for it -- and perhaps if relaxed and asked for her run at the end.

Scott, I don't know whether you're a trainer who delves into his charges' pedigrees and her relatives' past-performances looking for clues about what might work for the horse with which you've been charged. I believe some trainers do and frankly after years of observation I am convinced the majority don't.

Wildwood Meadow is still early in her career -- just five races in, with a win, two respectable seconds and $29,961 to show for it -- but I wouldn't wait much longer to let her try to emulate her female ancestors. Her dam and second dam had eight wins between them, six on grass and seven of them at 7.5 furlongs or beyond.

If I were a gambling man -- and would I be here and breed racehorses if I weren't? -- I'd wager you have a Poly/turf miler on your hands, Scott.

And with an interest in a related mare whose page and future progeny could use some positive reinforcement, I'm itching to find out.

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