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Feb 16, 2007

Through The Binoculars


If I am late getting my Monday column out there into cyberspace, I have a good reason.

I spent the morning hanging at the Snow Chief barn at Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs Ark., the current home of the unbeaten Hard Spun, who, as the regular readers of this space know, was anointed herein last October as the best 3-year-old of 2007.

At that time, you'll recall, you could have got 100-1 on Hard Spun at the Derby Future Books in Las Vegas. Yesterday, he closed at 10-1 in the Churchill Downs Futures, and that price will shrink after Hard Spun knocks off the Southwest at Oaklawn next Monday to make him 5-for-5.

Back to this morning.

At 9 o'clock, right after the track was harrowed, trainer Larry Jones lifted exercise rider Gina Suiter aboard Hard Spun on the grassy knoll outside the Snow Chief barn, and led the strapping Danzig colt the 50 yards or so to the gap by the five-eighths pole.

After a brief warm-up, Gina gave Hard Spun his head, and, with the eyes of scores of horsemen and hangers-on, glued to their every step, Hard Spun rattled off five furlongs in 59 seconds.

And the lady hasn't asked him to run yet.

The work was the fastest of the 25 workers at the distance. By how much you're asking? By two full seconds!

Coincidentally, Hard Spun's work coincided with the release of 78 nominations for the $250,000 Southwest, a race in which Hard Spun will be 2-5 under regular rider Mario Pino.

At this point in time, there are five others pointing for the mile race for 3-year-olds, and there's not a bum among them.

They are, in alphabetical order: Forty Grams, who will be ridden by Don Meche; Going Ballistic (Cliff Berry); I Got A Dream (Eddie Razo); Officer Rocket (Calvin Borel), and Starbase (John McKee).

Among that group are horses trained by D. Wayne Lukas (Starbase); Steve Asmussen (Forty Grams), and Bob Holthus (Officer Rocket) so you know the race won't be easy for Hard Spun. But then again maybe it will be.

As readers of this space have been made aware, Oaklawn Park in the last three years has been the winter-spring playground of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Lawyer Ron. All three won the Arkansas Derby in mid-April by open lengths.

Between them, Smarty and Alex went on to capture four of six Triple Crown races. Lawyer Ron came up empty in the Triple Crown, but judging by his performance yesterday in winning a Gulfstream Park allowance in his 4-year-old debut, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes the best handicap horse in the land by Breeders' Cup time.

So now comes Hard Spun. And, as I've been saying in this space since October, I believe that in time he will be the best of the lot.

Hope you got him covered at 100-1!

As I am writing this column in the Oaklawn media office, I glanced up to see a very impressive horse on my TV screen. In fact, he ran off my TV screen. His name is Tensas Phone Call, and he just won the fourth race at Fair Grounds to boost his career record to 4-1-0 in five starts. He's a 4-year-old gelded grandson of Mr. Prospector, which I guess makes him a nephew of Crafty Prospector.

By all means, he belongs on your Horses to Watch list. You may have to look some to find a better sprinter. And, I just noticed, he has old friend Dehere on his dam's side.

Speaking of Fair Grounds, they ran the $300,000 Risen Star Stakes for 3-year-olds at the New Orleans racing venue last Saturday, and, once again, you really needed to check my world-class phone service (1-888-612-2283) and here online with my ROAD TO THE DERBY Program, before the fact.

I gave out three horses in the Risen Star - Izzie's Halo, Notional and Zanjero - while leaving out Circular Quay, the even-money favorite.

Notional won the race, Zanjero finished third and Izzie's Halo finished fourth. That's three-fourths of the superfecta that came back $2200 and change. Forgive me. From now on, I will make four selections in every 3-year-old race on the old phone service.

I also had Noble Court, the small-priced winner of the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, and I successfully beat Lawrence Roman at 2-5 in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct. Apologies for not nailing the winner, but my top selection, Sports Town, paid $15.40 for third.

I'll try to do better next week.

I was hoping my media colleagues could do better this year in making out their Derby Top Ten polls, but I guess not.

Remember back in '04 and '05 when Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex were being ignored in those media polls. Well, here we go again. I am looking at the latest installment of the Louisville Courier-Journal's Top Ten polls.

The newspaper lists the Top Five from six different media types. They all have the same horses on top - No Biz Like Showbiz and Street Sense - while absolutely omitting Hard Spun.

Will they ever learn?

I guess they can't make themselves believe that a horse spending the winter in the Snow Chief barn at Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs, Ark., can be superior to the bluebloods from California, Kentucky and Florida.

A case in point is a colt named Ravel.

I gave out Ravel on my phone service in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 3 at Santa Anita, and was very happy to see him win at $7.20. But he was lucky to do so. He had the softest trip from the one-hole you'll ever see, saved every inch of ground,  and angled out in mid-stretch to wear down the leader, and win by a length.

Now, I'm seeing that Ravel, off that race, is being picked first or second in many Derby Top Tens.


Let it be said here that if Ravel ever beats Hard Spun in a meaningful race, I will be glad to share Ravel's oats.
Back to Oaklawn for a moment.

We had a remarkable story here last week.

About 10 days ago, it was reported that Mom's Command, one of the great race mares of all time, was euthanized at age 25 at a New Hampshire farm.

Unfortunately, Mom's Command never had the success in the breeding shed that she had on the racetrack, where she won the 1985 Triple Crown for Fillies, and the 3-year-old filly championship.

Fact is that Mom's Command got only 15 foals to the races, and only one, a colt named Jonesboro, was a stakes-winner.

The kicker is that last Saturday, five days after the passing of Mom's Command was reported, Jonesboro won the $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park. And he did it the way his dam won.

On the lead.

It's worth telling how important the Jones name is to Arkansas.

There is Jerry Jones, an Arkansas native who made a bit of a splash in the NFL.

There is Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun.

There is Matt Jones, a star QB at the University of Arkansas, now toiling as a wide receiver for Jacksonville in the NFL.

And, of course, there is Paula Jones...of Little Rock, Ark.

I think we all remember Paula.

But my favorite Jones story is about the city of Jonesboro, for which the Essex Handicap winner was named.

This is the story as told by Frank Gifford at the wake for his best friend Kyle Rote:

"Back in the early '50s, the Giants were scheduled to play a pre-season game against the Cleveland Browns in Little Rock. They couldn't find a suitable field for their final practice so they settled for the Jonesboro High School field an hour away.

"The field wasn't in the best shape, and as Rote, who was being groomed to play running back, started off-tackle, he stepped in a hole, and twisted his ankle. The injury was so severe that the Giants immediately switched Rote to wide receiver, where he had an all-star career.

"To fill Rote's place at running back, they brought over rookie Frank Gifford over from defensive back, put him in the starting backfield behind Y.A. Tittle...and the rest is history.

"If not for that hole on a high school field in Jonesboro, Ark.," said Gifford, "chances are that I would have spent my entire NFL career chasing Raymond Berry."


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