09/30/2009 11:00PM

Blackbriar taking relaxed approach to Classic


ARCADIA, Calif. - In a season highlighted by the elevation of the West's own Tiznow to a pedestal in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, one would think Saturday's 20th presentation of the California Cup at Santa Anita would provide an opportunity to wave the flag - there's a bear on it - and sing the praises of the sons and daughters of the Golden State.

Too bad none of them showed up.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. But for a program advertised over its successful two decades as a daylong opportunity to play full fields and chow down on infield barbeque with like-minded owners, breeders, and horseplayers, the sight of two five-horse lineups, two six-horse races, and not a single one of the 76 entrants on the 10-race card boasting bona fide star power is downright distressing.

Where's Lava Man when you need him?

Call it a sign of the times, a function of the larger economy, or blowback from Guantanamo - pick your poison - the anemic response to this year's Cal Cup makes it difficult to even think of the event in the light of the past, when horses like Best Pal, Cavonnier, Cat's Cradle, Moscow Burning, Big Jag, Budroyale, Sky Jack, Dream of Summer, House of Fortune. and Bel's Starlet strutted their considerable stuff for the pleasure of proud Californians.

This time, the best Cal-bred in training jumped the gun, when California Flag defended his title with aplomb in Oak Tree's opening-day Morvich Handicap on Wednesday. No show worth its salt intentionally blows its budget on an opening act, but since there is no open turf sprint on the Cal Cup program, California Flag had nowhere else to go in preparation for his next start in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Perhaps they'll bring him over for a bow.

From year to year, the quality of any stakes field will wax and wane, which would make it unfair to pick on the six horses running in the $200,000 Cal Cup Classic. Still, 1 1/8 miles should not be a lot to ask. And horses could have been made eligible for the race for as little as $100 as late as Aug. 17.

Two years ago, Bold Chieftain beat Celtic Dreamin and Seminole Native in an entertaining renewal of the Classic. Last year, Bold Chieftain popped up in the Cal Cup Mile and nearly pulled it off, dropping a one-length decision to Swift Winds. On Saturday, Bold Chieftain will be back on the main track in an attempt to become the first two-time winner of the Cal Cup Classic.

He'll need to be on his game to get by 3-year-old Grazen, and the classy filly Lethal Heat should have something to say as well. Strange things can happen, however, in a Cal Cup Classic - like Charmonnier shocking the 3-year-old Best Pal at 28-1, and College Town winning with Laffit Pincay at 33-1- so why not take a look at the 4-year-old Cape Town colt Blackbriar, who will carry the colors of breeder Damon Stathatos and the hopes of trainer Matt Chew.

If Blackbriar was worried about facing Grazen and Bold Chieftain, he was hiding it well late Thursday morning. Lying in his stall, feet to the back wall, a visitor could almost hear him snore.

"You can see he's a real nervous horse," said Chew, and at the sound of his voice, Blackbriar raised his head and sleepily eyed his trainer with a "Who, me?" look.

"He's a big, pretty guy, about 1,160 pounds," Chew went on. "We've got a scale right here at the barn. In fact, they brought Mine That Bird over yesterday and weighed him."


"He was 997," Chew reported.

Rubbing shoulders with the Derby winner can't hurt, and a Classic upset by Blackbriar certainly would not rank with Mine That Bird's shocker in Louisville last May. Still, Chew's big colt will need to find a few lengths if he is going to be competitive with the Bold Chieftain and Grazen.

Chew is the man who helped wrangle Seabiscuit's doubles for the filming of the Oscar-nominated "Seabiscuit" several years ago. Since then, he has parlayed the film industry connection into a side business that can provide TV or movie production companies with a ready-made cast of horses, riders, and race choreography when a script wanders into the racing world.

"We've done a little work for 'Jockeys,' and scenes for an episode of 'CSI: Miami,' " Chew said, displaying a laptop photo of him alongside David Caruso. "The most recent was staging a race for the skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, for his MTV show. He won the race - we gave him a pretty fast horse to ride - and he said it was the first time he'd ever been scared."

Blackbriar yawned. Apparently, he'd heard his trainer drop names before. In nine starts for Chew, the colt has won a maiden race and finished second three times.

"I was afraid he was getting a little comfortable finishing second there for a while," Chew said. "But I always thought he'd be a late-developer. He wants a mile and a mile and a quarter even more than a mile and one-eighth. And on this track, a mile and an eighth might be like a mile and a quarter."

Chew and his owner picked up on a trend leading up to the opening of the current meet that told them horses were finding the renovated Pro-Ride surface more tiring than normal as workouts lengthened. Whether or not similar conditions will continue through the first days of the meet is the puzzle.

"It's kind of a moving target," Chew said. "But there are horses who just don't seem to handle the surface as well as others. Blackbriar loves it. But he'll have to. Going in, Grazen and Bold Chieftain are head and shoulders above him. But even if he splits the field, he'll be third. There's nothing wrong with that."