NEW ORLEANS -- What did they expect when they called him The Player?
True to his name, The Player appears to have been playing around during his races, losing focus during key points when his mind should have been bent on competing.
After The Player fell out of contention in upper stretch as the heavy favorite here last month in the Louisiana Stakes, trainer Buff Bradley and jockey Calvin Borel decided the time had come to try blinkers. The Player worked impressively, his connections said, in the new headgear, and he ran the same way Saturday, winning the Grade 3, $150,000 Mineshaft Handicap by 4 1/4 lengths.
"We thought he'd win last time," said Bradley, who co-owns The Player with Carl Hurst. "We had blinkers in our head for a little bit. We knew we needed to get a little bit more focus."
The Player broke fourth, but made the lead in the first furlong and had a clear advantage while going his first quarter-mile in a moderate 24.27 seconds, chased by First Premio. That was the only moderate fraction, as The Player picked it up while racing into the wind down the backstretch to pass the half-mile in 47.98 seconds. Through three-quarters in 1:12.13 The Player still was going easily while First Premio had come under a ride, and after finding more when asked for his best a furlong out, The Player got one mile in a strong 1:36.10 and clocked a fast 1:42.29 for 1 1/16 miles.
"I didn't want to be on the lead, but we went slow enough, I thought," Borel said. "I smooched at him at about the eighth pole and he re-broke like he was supposed to. I was very impressed with him."
The Player paid $4.60 to win as the favorite and 120-pound starting high-weight. Thirstforlife came between horses in the final furlong to win a place photo over second-choice Scuba, as First Premio, making his dirt debut, was a head farther back in fourth. Cedartown, who had won the Louisiana Stakes impressively and was the Mineshaft morning-line favorite, was scratched Saturday morning because, trainer Mike Stidham said, the horse didn't appear to be at his best in the days leading to the Mineshaft.
This, if not the Grade 2 Fayette last fall at Keeneland, was as well as The Player ever has run, and he will go on to the New Orleans Handicap here next month apparently more focused on what is being asked of him in the afternoon.
The Player, a homebred 5-year-old, is by Street Hero out of Hour Queen, by Gilded Time. His career mark stands at a fine 13-5-3-1 after Saturday's encouraging performance.