By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Five-horse fields aren’t typically considered by
handicappers to make great betting races. It’s hard to find a price in small
fields, so the surest bet of the week is that many bettors will pass on playing
Saturday’s $100,000 Native Diver (G3) at
Del Mar.


But in my opinion, overlooking the Native Diver would be
a mistake. The 1 1/8-mile race has come up surprisingly competitive on paper,
and an upset winner might be in the offing since the established class horses
have form questions to answer.


Consider the expected favorite, #4 Midcourt. The talented 5-year-old won the 2019 Native Diver in
decisive fashion, leading all the way to dominate by 5 3/4 lengths. He
reiterated his affinity for the Del Mar main track when failing by a nose to
upset champion Maximum Security in the July 25 San Diego Handicap (G2), after
which he finished third in the Pacific Classic (G1) and Awesome Again (G1) to
emerge as a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) or Breeders’ Cup Dirt
Mile (G1).


But trainer John Shirreffs ultimately pulled the plug on
a planned Breeders’ Cup run, electing to target the Native Diver instead.
Midcourt brings strong speed figures to the equation and certainly boasts the
best form lines, stamping him as the horse to beat while dropping down the
class ladder. But Midcourt’s recent work tab has been a little light, and his
tendency to break slowly is concerning. Midcourt does his best running on the
front end, so whether he brings his A-game to the Native Diver will depend in
large part on whether he exits the starting gate cleanly.


#1
Combatant
is an accomplished alternative, considering he finished
three-quarters of a length clear of Midcourt when prevailing in the Mar. 7
Santa Anita Handicap (G1). But the son of Scat Daddy has gone 0-for-4 since
securing his signature victory, running off the board by wide margins in the
Oaklawn Handicap (G2), San Diego Handicap (G2), and Del Mar Handicap (G2)
before improving slightly to finish third in the 1 1/2-mile Tokyo City Cup
(G3).


Combatant has been training forwardly and might take a
step forward while cutting back in distance for the Native Diver, but it’s hard
to overlook the fact he hasn’t finished within 8 1/2 lengths of victory in his
last four starts. The veteran 5-year-old is tough to trust, at least on top.


#3
Royal Ship
, a Group 1 winner in Brazil, finished third in the Del
Mar Mile Handicap (G2) and sixth in the City of Hope Mile (G1) to kick off his
North American campaign. He wasn’t disgraced on either occasion and looms as an
intriguing dark horse to finish on the board for ultra-hot trainer Richard
Mandella (5-for-10 to start the Del Mar meet), who enlists Hall of Fame jockey
Mike Smith to ride.


The filly #2
Stellar Sound
is also worth a long look. Formerly trained by Bob Baffert,
the daughter of Tapit fired off a big effort in an Oct. 2 allowance race over a
mile at Santa Anita. Making her debut for trainer Michael McCarthy (3-for-5 at
Del Mar so far), Stellar Sound showed no signs of rust off an eight-month layoff,
settling into a tracking position before pounced to the front to win by seven
lengths.


But while Royal Ship and Stellar Sound offer appeal for
the purpose of exotic wagers, the horse I plan to bet on top is #5 Extra Hope, the second runner
conditioned by Mandella. Though far from the most accomplished horse in the
Native Diver field, Extra Hope has long displayed flashes of talent and enters
the Native Diver on an upward trajectory.


Third behind future Grade 1 stars Improbable and Mucho
Gusto in the 2018 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1), Extra Hope finished second
against Midcourt in the 2019 Native Diver and appears poised for an even
sharper effort in 2020. The 4-year-old son of Shanghai Bobby has only run twice
this year, but he displayed impressive tenacity in a 1-mile allowance race on
Sept. 26 at Santa Anita, turning back a determined bid from the talented
Express Train to win by three-quarters of a length.


Extra Hope hit the finish line in 1:36.19, earning
promising speed figures of 92 (Beyer) and 100 (Brisnet). With his tactical
speed, Extra Hope figures to enjoy a perfect trip setting or stalking the pace,
particularly if Midcourt suffers a slow start. He’ll need another step forward
to reach the winner’s circle, but he’s been training up a storm in preparation
for this race and retains the services of high-percentage jockey Juan
Hernandez, a 23% winner this year. I don’t think we’ve seen Extra Hope’s best
just yet, and I’m willing to bet he can spring a surprise at a solid price on
Saturday.


Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Native Diver?

*****

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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as “Keelerman”) is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.





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