With less than a month left in the 1994 Los Alamitos season, some of the top quarter horses in the nation will be making their final appearances of the year in the coming weeks, many with championships still possible.
Among the divisions with the stiffest competition is the one for distance horses, with the most recent championship nominee, the Texas-based gelding Better Than Never.
Trained by Blane Schvaneveldt, Better Than Never won the $65,600 Marathon Handicap last Friday night, upsetting favored Griswold and highly regarded Mr Diddy Wa Diddy.
Better Than Never, who was ridden for the first time by G.R. Carter, used his typical style, stalking pacesetters Griswold and Speedy Lunch in the early stages. Then, rounding the turn for home, Better Than Never made his move, finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of runner-up Stellar Trux. A tiring Griswold held on for third.
"That's where we get it, always on the end," said Bob Blakeman, Better Than Never's owner. "It just went completely right for us tonight. To come here and beat these kind of horses is a big thrill."
Blakeman, from Ft. Worth, campaigned Better Than Never in Texas and Oklahoma before moving to California.
One of Better Than Never's biggest victories was in the inaugural Grade I Governor's Cup Marathon at Sam Houston, where he set a track record of 44.99 seconds for 870 yards.
The 4-year-old gelding's four-race winning streak was broken in his first California start of the year, the Pomona 870 Invitational Handicap. He finished fifth in that race at Fairplex Park. Better Than Never redeemed himself in his debut at Los Alamitos, winning a trial for the AQHA Challenge Distance Championship and defeating three-time champion Griswold.
In 10 starts since January, Better Than Never has earned more than $72,000, and is the only distance horse to have won two Grade I events this year.
"When you come (to Los Alamitos), you come to run against the best 870 horses in the nation," Blakeman said.
Indeed, two of Better Than Never's strongest rivals for the distance horse award are Los Alamitos runners Mr Diddy Wa Diddy and Griswold.
Conditioned by Charles Treece, Mr Diddy Wa Diddy started 1994 right where he had ended 1993, in the winner's circle. Mr Diddy Wa Diddy, who made a name for himself by defeating Griswold in last year's Marathon Handicap, looked stronger than ever earlier this year.
The 6-year-old gelding won his first race of the year, the War Chic) Handicap on May 6. He then finished third in both the Endurance Handicap and All-Star Jockey Challenge, and fourth in the Table Tennis Handicap for owner Gladys DeWolf.
With only two off-the-board finishes this season, Mr Diddy Wa Diddy has an impressive record, having earned $45,803 in nine starts.
Mr Diddy Wa Diddy and Better Than Never may be newcomers to the championship scene but Griswold certainly is not.
He has dominated the distance horse ranks, scoring an unprecedented three consecutive championship titles. He holds the 870-yard track record at Los Alamitos of 43.99 seconds and has earned more than $600,000.
But if Griswold has remained a force, he hasn't shown the brilliance this year that previously took him to the top.
Better Than Never, Mr Diddy Wa Diddy and Griswold appear to be the top contenders, but several other horses could also be considered for championship honors, among them Table Tennis Handicap winner Trucklin Six and Speedy Lunch, who won a match race at Remington Park before winning the Challenge Distance Championship at Los Alamitos.
One test remains, the Quarter Horse Breeders Classics Marathon on Dec. 17.
Los Alamitos Notes
Childish and Femmes Frolic, the top two finishers in the $20,000 Z. Wayne Griffin Director's Trial last Saturday night, each earned a berth in the Champion of Champions on Dec. 17. . . . Arabian trainer John Burger was suspended for 90 days and fined $1,000 after one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine, a prohibited substance. Burger's suspension runs through Feb. 11.