Hoping for a Surprise in the Native Diver Stakes

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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