05/08/2009 12:00AM

Arizona runners at home on big stage


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kentucky has those Mammoth Caves, a long stretch of the Ohio River, coal mines, rabbit hash, hot browns, and sour mash to chase it all down.

Arizona has a big ol' meteor crater, what's left of the Colorado River, a petrified forest, salsa verde, and the OK Corral.

The last time the University of Kentucky won the NCAA basketball championship was 1998. The only time the University of Arizona won the NCAA title was 1997.

When a 3-year-old filly wins the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths, she gets bought for upwards of $8 million by some win gazillionaire.

When a 3-year-old filly wins the Arizona Oaks by 13 1/4 lengths, she gets dinner.

That would be Carlsbad, the pride of the Grand Canyon State, unbeaten and untied in five starts so far in a career that is just now coming to general notice. She is Arizona through and through, bred by her owner, Dennis Weir, from a mating of the In Excess stallion Rocky Bar and the Pine Bluff mare Kits Peak, which makes Carlsbad's family sound more like a road atlas of the Southwest than a formula for success. In this case, it's both.

At this point, Carlsbad rests somewhere on the remarkable racehorse spectrum between superstar Rachel Alexandra, now beyond reproach as the greatest filly since Ruffian (ask around), and Pepper's Pride, the redoubtable New Mexico mare who retired last year after winning all 19 of her starts without leaving the state.

Carlsbad left her state, and did it in style, winning the Santa Paula Stakes, a Grade 3 sprint, at Santa Anita in late March, in what was her first start for California-based Jeff Mullins. Kevin Lewis trained her in Arizona. On Sunday at Hollywood Park, Carlsbad will take the next step in her journey when she heads the field for the $100,000 Railbird Stakes, also a Grade 3 event. Tyler Baze rides her again.

Carlsbad's 3 1/4-length win in the Santa Paula was not up to her Arizona standards, unless you like an 18-point jump in a Beyer Speed Figure. Over there, she was winning in splendid isolation - by 14 1/4 in the Arizona Breeders Futurity, by 19 in the Arizona Juvenile Filly Stakes, and then that 13 1/4 lengths in the one-mile Arizona Oaks. Before the Santa Paula, though, Baze wondered if they had the right halter on Carlsbad when he worked her the first time.

"When they showed me her form, my first though was, 'Wow, she doesn't work like a horse who can do that,' " Baze said. "The day of the race, I just got back from riding in Dubai. I drove a hundred miles an hour from the airport to ride her, and she proved she was something special in every sense of the word.

"She absolutely dragged me to the winner's circle that day," Baze went on. "Since then, every work has been phenomenal, just ridiculous, including the other day, when she went in 58-and-4 breezing, with my feet on the dashboard."

Baze describes Carlsbad as not real big but very well built, with a long, deer-like stride.

"When you're working her, it seems like you're in the air forever," Baze noted.

"So I'm excited about Sunday," he added. "She's gonna get a little stiffer test. She drew inside, post 3, so she'll have to prove she can handle the pressure from the outside. I even think she can sit off them if she has to. In her first career start, she got left at the gate, so she overcame that and she's already won going two turns."

No one should be surprised that the Dennis Weir operation has come up with another good one. Including the meet that just ended last weekend, the Weir stable has won 14 Turf Paradise owner championships. When the horse warrants, they wander west and have made an impact with several runners, most notably Eagleton, winner of the Will Rogers at Hollywood Park and the La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar, and Hidden Lake, who won the 1996 La Brea Stakes and was a lapped-on third to reigning champion Jewel Princess the following year in the Santa Margarita.

Hidden Lake was sold by Weir that spring to Robert Clay, for whom she went on to win an Eclipse Award of her own by taking four stakes in New York, including the Go for Wand and the Beldame. More recently, Weir and Lewis took their bargain 2-year-old Siberland to Del Mar to win a small stakes in summer 2002, then returned in 2003 for the San Felipe Stakes. They were not embarrassed when he was beaten just three lengths by eventual Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil, but Siberland never raced again.

Now comes Carlsbad, named for the New Mexico town where there are caverns to rival the Mammoth Caves. She might not be the West's answer to Rachel Alexandra, but on Sunday, she doesn't need to be. Anyway, the idea of a horse coming out of the Southwest to compete successfully at the highest levels of Thoroughbred racing is not that outlandish.

Track Robbery did time at Turf Paradise, Albuquerque, Ak-Sar-Ben, and old Centennial before becoming champion mare of 1982. Lite Light began her career with two races at Turf Paradise, then won the Kentucky Oaks, Santa Anita Oaks, and Coaching Club American Oaks of 1991. And there was another one, more recently, who left Sunland Park to win a big one somewhere in Kentucky, but just now the name slips my mind.