Saturday’s $98,000 Native Diver (G3) at Del Mar didn’t exactly go according to plan. Not only did 4-5 favorite Roadster spin his wheels in a non-threatening last, but the improving Midcourt, who’d never been on the lead before, pulled off a front-running gambit for Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza.
The complexion of the Native Diver changed when pace factors Leading Score and Zestful both scratched, leaving a four-horse field. From the gate, Extra Hope was quickest into stride, but Espinoza rapidly sized up the situation and decided to seize the initiative aboard Midcourt. He trusted that the lightly raced John Shirreffs pupil, who’d won three straight, would see out the 1 1/8-mile trip in his graded debut.
Sent through from his rail post, the 5-2 second choice took charge through an opening quarter in :23.55, and the race was virtually over. Extra Hope tracked just a length back as Midcourt reeled off fractions of :47.61 and 1:11.54, with Two Thirty Five and Roadster in the next flight. While the favorite didn’t look particularly into it early, the real warning sign came on the far turn. Roadster came under a ride, only to sputter ineffectually.
Midcourt, on the other hand, was galloping with enthusiasm and beginning to pull away from them. The well-named son of Midnight Lute opened up by 3 1/2 lengths in midstretch, widened to 5 3/4 lengths at the wire, and finished in 1:48.36.
Extra Hope held second by 1 1/4 lengths from Two Thirty Five. Roadster lost ground in the stretch and labored home a further 2 3/4 lengths back.
Espinoza’s insight into Midcourt was key.
“The whole thing today was I knew I had to let him do what he wants,” the Hall of Famer told Del Mar publicity. “He’s that kind of horse. I knew there wasn’t much speed in there today. And even though he’s never been on the lead in his races, I thought he might if he broke OK. He got out of there well and I gave him just a little encouragement and he went to the front. He was going so easy doing it, I knew when it came time he was really going to go.”
Shirreffs didn’t see the tactical switcheroo coming.
“It wasn’t the way I expected,” the horseman said. “I didn’t think they’d take off that soon and go to the lead. But Victor rode him great and he wanted to run today.”
Campaigned by Lee and Susan Searing’s C R K Stable, Midcourt advanced his record to 7-4-1-0, $198,695. The $450,000 Keeneland September yearling was twice unplaced as a juvenile for Peter Eurton, including a distant seventh in McKinzie’s maiden. Midcourt was then shelved, missing his entire sophomore season.
The four-year-old resurfaced with Shirreffs early this year. Since his runner-up effort in his February 24 comeback, Midcourt has climbed the class ladder in each start. The dark bay gelding broke his maiden in a photo at Santa Anita June 2, cleared his entry-level allowance condition at Del Mar August 18, went last to first in his stakes debut in the October 27 Comma to the Top back at Santa Anita, and made it four straight here.
“He’s been training well,” Shirreffs said, “but there’s always a step up they have to take in the afternoons. You hope there’s a realization then. He’s doing really well right now so we’ll go on to Santa Anita and see what we can do.”
Bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky, Midcourt is out of Grade 1 winner Mayo on the Side, famous for upending Hall of Famer Azeri in the 2004 Humana Distaff (G1). She has also produced stakes scorer French Dip and The Real Mayo, dam of Mexican star Kukulkan.
Midcourt is inbred 4×3 to Deputy Minister, with Midnight Lute being out of a Dehere mare and Mayo on the Side a daughter of French Deputy.