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BC Journal: Gallops at sunrise, Guinness at night
Jay Hovdey, Oct. 23:
This time of year, if you're out early and lean against the back rail of Santa Anita's 1 1/4-mile main track chute, you can face due east down the stretch and watch the first orange glow of the rising sun silhouette the stand of three tall palms tucked just inside the clubhouse turn. A few minutes later, you can't see a thing. Backlit figures come out of the glare, like gunfighters, unrecognizable until they're right on top of you. Who's that? It was Alex Solis.
The last time Solis rode in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, he stole the day with a victory in the 2003 Classic aboard Pleasantly Perfect and a dead-heat for the win in the Turf with Johar. Nine months later, he broke his back at Del Mar and had to have surgery to repair and align his spine. Since then, his career has yet to regain previous heights.
Solis has high hopes in the Mile for Daytona, winner of the Arcadia Handicap at a mile here last winter, and in the Juvenile with Street Hero, winner of the Norfolk over the main track. The Mile, when run around Santa Anita's tight, firm grass oval, usually comes down to nimble Americans getting the jump on late-blasting Euros.
"The European rider will move his horse a little earlier on the backstretch because they know their horses don't make up much ground on the turns," Solis said. "Daytona is a very good turn runner. He has a very strong left side." . . .
Never mind steroids, Lasix, and bute. Forever Together gets a pint of Guinness in her feed each evening, just to help her sweat.
"I don't know why it works," said her trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, outside Barn 27 Thursday morning. "I have noticed, though, that people who drink a lot of beer tend to sweat quite a lot."
Spoken like a man who enjoys fine wine. Sheppard discovered that Forever Together had stopped sweating earlier this year. This is not good for a hair-covered animal. The body needs to be cooled down after physical endeavor, and sweating does the job. Forever Together, every inch the spoiled princess, now perspires on cue.
Sheppard, one of eight Hall of Fame trainers with Cup runners, is in town for a rare California appearance with nothing less than a championship on the line. If Forever Together can add the Filly and Mare Turf to her wins in the Diana and the First Lady, the deal is done.
"After she won the Diana," Sheppard said, "we got a letter from the Breeders' Cup telling us that she had just won a Win and You're In race, and that it would cost 'only' $50,000 for her to enter. Only $50,000! They were obviously talking about someone else's money."
Championship implications aside, Sheppard also would like to win his first Breeders' Cup race after second-place finishes in 1985 with Storm Cat in the Juvenile and in 2002 with With Anticipation in the Turf.
"Is that Curlin over there?" Sheppard asked as a big chestnut rump disappeared into the wash rack. The answer was yes. "Maybe we can introduce him to Forever Together. I think they'd make a good match."
First things first. Sheppard looked around and his filly had flown the coop, off on a walkabout with her work rider, Danielle Hodsdon, who also just happens to be the 2007 American champion steeplechase rider. Back home in Pennsylvania, at Sheppard's private training ground, there is a lot more room to roam compared to the cramped Santa Anita backstretch.
"They're both very independent," Sheppard said of his horse and rider. "I'm lucky if they let me know what they're doing." . . .
Besides Curlin and Forever Together, Barn 27 houses Go Between, War Monger, and the other Breeders' Cup runners trained by Bill Mott, who was bundled up early against the morning chill. On the ground, Mott is in constant motion, fussing with every detail, and by 9 a.m. he was stripped down to his T-shirt. "I think this is about as far as I should go," he grinned. Too bad. Would have made great YouTube. . . .
Earlier, from atop a pony on loan from Carla Gaines, Mott expressed his condolences to fellow trainer Greg Gilchrist, who had to scratch Indyanne from the Filly and Mare Sprint because of a fever.
"Thanks, Bill. At least I won't be losing one tomorrow," said Gilchrist, whose luck in four Breeders' Cup trips has been nothing but rotten. His toughest beat was at Churchill Downs in 1994 when the filly Soviet Problem lost the Sprint by a head.
"She was stabled in Bill's barn that week," Gilchrist said. "He had us in an end stall, right next to a horse named Cigar, who hadn't really done much at the time." . . .
The Santa Anita backstretch is criss-crossed by a grid of dirt roads. Traffic this week has been high, with an extra hundred or so horses on the scene, all in high preparation for Breeders' Cup races. It's a blast to be walking along and look up to see, from out of nowhere, stars from afar - the classy sprinter Fabulous Strike, the American Oaks winer Pure Clan, old pro Better Talk Now.
Nothing, however, can prepare you for the sight of the Coolmore cavalry on parade. Nose to tail, replicating their formation back home at Ballydoyle, they made the turn from the main road, strolled past Curlin's barn, and went on their way, back to the quarantine facility: Red Rock Canyon, Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, Joe the Plumber (scratch that), Soldier of Fortune, U S Ranger, Heart Shaped, Halfway to Heaven.
Trainer David Hofmans, who has Desert Code in the Turf Sprint, was walking the opposite direction, enjoying the view. Asked which one of the Coolmore chorus line he liked, Hofmans hedged.
"Yeah, well, the one coming this way," he said. "I'll take her."
It was Zenyatta.
Hofmans was prejudiced. He trained Zenyatta's half-sister, Balance, to win the 2007 Santa Anita Oaks. Like Balance, Zenyatta has her moments.
"She can be hot, very hot," said rider Steve Willard as Zenyatta launched into her idiosyncratic goosestep entering the walking ring after a mile gallop. Her groom, Mario Espinoza, kept one strong hand on the shank and the other on the big filly's neck, as Willard stroked her mane.
"She started doing that goosestep at Del Mar," said Willard, a native of Winnetka, Ill. "I think it's just her way to release anxiety. She's always wanting to do something."
On the way back home, Zenyatta ambled past the Jay Robbins shed row, where two-time Classic winner Tiznow hung his hat. Physically, Tiznow would be one of the few horses who could give the 17-hands Zenyatta an argument.
"They should breed her to him," Robbins said. "Probably get a giraffe."
The Breeders' Cup rule requires all runners to be on the grounds no later than 48 hours before noon on the day of their race. Zenyatta, who will be going for her ninth win without a defeat on Friday in the Ladies Classic, arrived from Hollywood Park at 11:59 a.m. Wednesday. Usually, she doesn't cut it that close.
"I said when she first started to run that we might be looking at another Ruffian," Willard said. "I didn't know how right I'd be."
Marcus Hersh, Oct. 23:
ARCADIA, Calif. If you think the down-the-hill turf course at Santa Anita looks funky on a television monitor, or even from the grandstand here at the track, you should see it up close and personal which I had the privilege of doing Thursday morning. Bret Calhoun trains possible BC Turf Sprint favorite Mr. Nightlinger, and since Mr. Nightlinger has never raced at Santa Anita, Calhoun was interested in getting a first-hand look at the only course in the country with a right-hand turn.
The bend to the right hardly is the only unusual aspect of the course. From the gate, the lawn slopes steadily downhill before undulating uphill perhaps three-sixteenths of a mile from the start. Then, a sudden dogleg right, another stretch of steady descent before turning left again, and strangest of all, a pass over the main track as the horses move into the same home-stretch used in turf races run around the regular grass oval here.
"When they make the right turn, theyre not used to that at all," jockey Victor Espinoza said at a Thursday morning press conference. "Theyre used to going left, and its a pretty sharp right, and then you have to make a quick left. For me, I like to be outside. If youre outside, you just turn right with no problem."
Mr. Nightlinger, it so happens, could not be any farther outside: He breaks from post 14 in a full field. And Calhoun does not seem especially worried about the unusual course.
"Hes a really smart horse," Calhoun said. "He doesnt make many mistakes."
Calhoun said his chief concern is the main-track crossover. Theres not going to be a chance for Mr. Nightlinger to practice that before race day, and Calhoun said hell just instruct jockey Jamie Theriot to take Mr. Nightlinger across the Pro-Ride path several times during prerace warmups.
What really surprised Calhoun and surprised me, too was the forgiving nature of the Santa Anita turf. The course is cut short, and looks like it should be at least super-firm, if not downright hard, but that is not the case at all. The lawn is springy, and ones feet sink surprisingly deep into the layer of Tifway II Bermuda grass.
"People always think its going to be hard, and perception is everything," said Santa Anita turf superintendent J.F. Bonavich, who led Calhoun on the tour. "Its short grass, but we try to keep it with a really nice cushion for the horses."
The Bermuda grass basically has stopped growing this time of year, said Bonavich, who watered the lawn Wednesday night, and said he will water it again the next two nights. Indeed, my sneakers were soaked through the toe by the time the tour had ended.
Races have been run here with the portable inside rail out in the course since Oct. 5, and walking the grass, the far inside definitely has a different consistency. It lacks the hoofprints in the part of the course that has been used, but the cleaner section of course does feel softer and deeper than the outer part.
Last-minute blowouts a Jerkens trademark
Training hours Thursday at Santa Anita featured a parade of stars, with Breeders Cup horses passing by the apron at a dizzying pace. More than 100 were out on the day, but only three actually did any real running. Salute the Count had a timed three-furlong breeze, but he races Saturday in the Turf Sprint. Going untimed by official clockers were furlong-and-a-half stretch blowouts by Doremifasollatido (Juvenile Fillies) and Zaftig (F&M Sprint). Those two race on Friday, and trainer Jimmy Jerkens pulled a page out of the past by putting some air in the horses lungs and zip in their step not much more than 24 hours before a race.
"We still do that a lot, depending on how far out their major work was," Jerkens said.
Jerkens, of course, learned the trade under his father, Allen Jerkens, who is back in New York battling health problems this Breeders Cup Week.
"You know, my father used to blow them out a fast eighth of a mile the day of the race," Jerkens said. "Of course, you had to have a good rider to make sure they didnt do too much. And, we had a special stable pony who would catch them as soon as they pulled up. Now, the horses are different. There arent so many big, heavy horses that would need to do something like that."
The mere name of Allen Jerkens triggers visions of horsemanship, but the Hall of Famers Breeders Cup luck has been nil zero wins in 11 tries. Typical of the struggle was the 1993 Cup here at Santa Anita, where Sky Beauty finished fifth in the Distaff after an awesome season back East, and Devil His Due trudged home ninth in the Classic.
Jimmy Jerkens came that year as an assistant, and recalls the trip as "a disaster."
"The thing with Sky Beauty, as good as she was, she always used to tail off in the fall," he said. "She would start to grow a long coat in August. She just didnt adapt."
But Zaftigs gray coat has a nice shine, and she comes into the F&M Sprint fresh as can be no races since she whipped Indian Blessing by more than four lengths June 7 in Belmonts Acorn. A six-furlong drill in 1:11 and change back home in New York was followed by another 1:11-and-change work here last weekend.
"She got a little tired in the last one, but she went so fast around the turn," Jerkens said. "She got a lot out of it."
Any pressure to reverse the familys BC record has long since lifted. Jerkens the younger lost just one BC race before Artie Schiller took the 2005 Mile, and after Corinthian crushed all comers in the Dirt Mile last year, Jerkens has a 2-3 mark in the Cup.
Now, to take care of those disappointing California memories.