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2-year-olds look to hit Jackpot

How good can he be? That's the essential question this time of year when looking ahead to next season. Modest accomplishments, erratic behavior, a poor effort here and an inexplicable one there -- all of that fades into the background when the essential question steps forward and demands to be heard. Forevamo and Whitmore could be uncommonly good, Mor Spirit and Gift Box could be exceedingly good, a dazzlement of others could be very good, too, and some of them undoubtedly will be, emerging over the next few months to put themselves onto the road that leads in the general direction of legendary spires, intrusive cameras and baroque jewelry.

Saturday, the essential question will prance onto the track in Vinton, Louisiana, for the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. With its gaudy purse, the race has given this quaint racetrack located in the sport's backwaters an annual moment of significance. The race dramatizes the essential question. And some of the answers have been notable, for the Jackpot has included such outstanding horses as Goldencents, Big Drama, Mylute, Mr. Z and Gourmet Dinner.

The youngsters converging on Saturday's Jackpot, as you'd expect, are largely unproven, except for the two favorites. Exaggerator, the 2-1 favorite, won the Saratoga Special and finished fourth in the recent Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Sunny Ridge won the Sapling at Monmouth and finished second in the Champagne at Belmont.

For the most part, their talent is known. Except for encountering some traffic in the lane that might have cost him third, Exaggerator had a favorable trip in the Breeders' Cup and no real excuses; that's who he is. He just wasn't good enough to threaten Nyquist, who won despite a Marco Polo sort of journey. Sunny Ridge looked like a winner turning into the stretch of the Champagne, but he just wasn't good enough to withstand the charge of Greenpointcrusader. Exaggerator and Sunny Ridge obviously are talented, and they'll improve with experience and maturity. They're known quantities. But the unknowns are what make the Jackpot so intriguing.

How good can Forevamo be? The long-striding colt who looks more like his sire than most sons of Uncle Mo overcame his own bewilderment to win Delta's Jean Lafitte Stakes. Imagine the situation: A lightly raced colt, he never had raced around two turns, or on a sloppy racetrack, or under the lights or at Delta Downs. At the start, the horse on the rail quickly lost his rider and ducked out, nearly slamming into Forevamo. Having to be checked, the ended up four-wide in the first turn and about six or seven lengths back. With his long, graceful strides he pulled jockey Colby Hernandez toward the leaders on the backstretch and to the lead around the second turn.

And so Forevamo turned into the Delta stretch on the lead for the first time in his career, all alone and looking like an easy winner, and then he saw the floodlit track, the unfamiliar surroundings and the water glistening. Imagine his confusion. His ears went up, and he basically stopped running.

With a left-handed stick, Hernandez tried to get him going again, but Forevamo only drifted out. In an instant, Harlan Punch, who was rallying, got to and passed the leader, putting a head in front. And then, seeing his rival, Forevamo started running again. Hernandez put the stick away, and they won by nearly a length.

"He just stopped when he got to the lead," Forevamo's trainer, Al Stall Jr., said about the incident in the stretch at Delta. "He stopped running." At that point, Stall said, he thought Harlan Punch, who had all the momentum, was going to win by three lengths.

Was it the stick, the surroundings or the lights that startled Forevamo into a dramatic downshift? Was it being alone on the lead? Or was it everything in combination, the completely unfamiliar situation that to a young racehorse must have seemed strange and threatening? Whatever it was, Forevamo figured it all out quickly enough to win. And so, Stall said, the Jean Lafitte turned out to be a good learning experience.

How good can Forevamo be? He never has been rushed, Stall said, but was allowed to develop at his own pace. Sprinting in his debut at Saratoga, Forevamo finished fourth. But from the outset, Stall said, the $320,000 purchase looked like a two-turn horse, with a two-turn body and stride.

And so, Stall explained, he had high expectations when he sent the colt to Delta for the Jean Lafitte, and the trainer got much more than he even expected, a victory and a lesson in winning. Forevamo could be very good.

Whitmore is another intriguing member of the Jackpot cast. In his debut at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, he stalked a lively pace, advanced three-wide in the turn and shot clear. But then, like Forevamo, he seemed lost on the lead. Whitmore ducked out in the stretch, switched strides, back to his left lead, and then switched again, back to his right. And still he won by more than seven lengths. How good can Whitmore be?

Many youngsters invite the essential question this time of year. Two of the most promising, but largely unproven, 2-year-olds are Mor Spirit and Gift Box. They already look they're ready to jump on that celebrated road. Getting just a tap on the shoulder from jockey Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit drew clear in the Santa Anita stretch to win last month for the first time. Like his sire, Eskendereya, Mor Spirit runs with his head low, and looks relentless. Gift Box, a handsome gray son of Twirling Candy, also won for the first time last month, by a nose at Belmont Park over another promising youngster, Matt King Coal. It was 18 lengths back to the hapless third horse. Matt King Coal and Gift Box are both nominated to the upcoming Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.

And then there are Gun Runner and Mohaymen, unbeaten colts who are still learning. Gun Runner is set to make his stakes debut in the upcoming Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Mohaymen won the recent Nashua Stakes with a powerful move into a 23.88-second third quarter-mile. He's also nominated to the Remsen.

The essential question's always laden with hope and, in some cases, dreamy expectations. Dolphus, a half-brother to Rachel Alexandra, makes his debut Sunday at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. But the questions just keep coming -- Sail Ahoy, Toews On Ice, Secret Passage, Annual Report, Flexibility, Smoky Image, and so many more. The upcoming months should produce some exciting answers.