Big Score has some issues with Sharp Samurai his people hope to resolve on Saturday in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar.
It's not personal, Sonny. Strictly business. Both 3-year-olds are as honest as the day is long. But after two encounters that went perfect for Sharp Samurai and less than ideal for Big Score, one last shot this year is all trainer Tim Yakteen and owner George Krikorian are asking.
The Hollywood Derby earned its Grade 1 chops long ago when it was a main-track event run in the spring and won by the likes of Swaps, Round Table, Riva Ridge, and Affirmed. Now safely tucked away at Del Mar over nine furlongs on grass, the race brings to a close the three-beat Southern California series that exists in a parallel universe to all the mega-dollar dirt races for the national 3-year-old division.
Sharp Samurai defeated Big Score by a half-length in the Del Mar Derby in early September, then handled him again, by 2 3/4 lengths, in the Twilight Derby at Santa Anita in late October. Both races were also at a mile and one-eighth on firm turf, and all the gates opened at the same time. In light of this, Yakteen was asked if he really thinks he has found the yardage to turn the tables on Saturday.
"I'm pretty happy with the way things are looking," Yakteen said. "We missed a key work going into the Twilight Derby because he got a little sick. I don't think we would have beaten Sharp Samurai anyway - he ran a fantastic race - but this time there have been no bumps in the road."
In the Del Mar Derby, Big Score and Flavien Prat got the worst of a traffic snarl when Victor Espinoza's saddle slipped on the forwardly placed longshot Harbor Master. Prat had to decide whether to zig or zag around the looming problem and ended up behind a wall of runners angling into the stretch, while Gary Stevens gave Sharp Samurai a clean run on the outside. Big Score came running, but fell just short.
"He's run some very good races at Del Mar," Yakteen said, harking back to a maiden win last summer and a deep-closing second in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf.
Those performances bought Big Score a ticket to the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita, which turned out to be one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios that trainers rarely forget.
"Oh boy, it was a phenomenally strong race," Yakteen said. "On top of that, our horse bruised his foot on the Monday before the race. We got over the bruise, but the course was very firm. And going into a race like that, everything had better be perfect."
For the record, the 1-2-3 finishers in that running of the BCJT were Oscar Performance (winner of the 2017 Belmont Derby and Secretariat Stakes), Lancaster Bomber (second in the 2017 St. James's Palace, Woodbine Mile, and Breeders' Cup Mile), and Good Samaritan (winner of the 2017 Jim Dandy). Big Score finished fifth, beaten about five lengths.
As a son of the Dynaformer stallion Mr. Big out of a mare by Unusual Heat, Big Score could have just as easily been a dirt horse on the Triple Crown trail.
"He never really flattered himself on the main track, though," Yakteen said. "So we stuck to our game plan and let him do what we knew he could do."
With few turf opportunities at home, Big Score commenced his 3-year-old campaign by winning the Transylvania at Keeneland. After that came a close third in the American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs and a second in the Penn Mile at Penn National. He finally hit a travel wall in the Belmont Derby, his only poor effort, and earned a month off to be fresh for the second half of the season. Now it's time to settle the score.
Native Diver, restored
Anyone visiting Del Mar Saturday afternoon should take a moment to contemplate the restoration of the Native Diver mosaics adorning the grandstand wall of the tunnel leading from the walking ring to the main track. It seems only right, with the Native Diver Stakes prominent on the Hollywood Derby undercard.
The panels depicting Native Diver's three victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup were created by the noted American artist Millard Sheets, whose work, in a variety of mediums, was rooted in California's landscapes and cultural traditions. The Gold Cup mosaics originally were part of the Native Diver memorial at Hollywood Park, where the Hall of Fame gelding was buried in 1968. Prior to Hollywood's demolition, Native Diver's remains were exhumed and reinterred beneath a marker in the Del Mar infield, while the Sheets artwork was preserved for more accessible public viewing.
None of the seven horses in Saturday's version of the Native Diver have yet to reach heights worthy of a wall memorial, but at a mile and one-eighth on the main track the race should be an intriguing contest. The international workhorse Mubtaahij, winner of the Awesome Again but up the track against Gun Runner in the Breeders' Cup Classic, must deal with the emergent Top of the Game, who won a small stakes at the end of the Santa Anita meet with Diver-like flair, as well as Curlin Rules, who saves his best for Del Mar.