03/04/2009 12:00AM

Blue Exit takes a shot at rare feat

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - The idea of a stable winning the Santa Anita Handicap two years in a row with two different horses is not that outrageous. Tom Smith did it in 1939 and 1940 with Kayak and Seabiscuit. Charlie Whittingham did it in 1985 and 1986 with Lord at War and Greinton. Richard Mandella did it in 1997 and 1998 with Siphon and Malek.

Let's see . . . 72 runnings . . . Smith, Whittingham, Mandella . . . yep, that's it. Guess the idea is pretty outrageous after all.

That, in fact, is the way Jerry Hollendorfer feels. Last year, his victory in the Santa Anita Handicap with Heatseeker was a high point in the trainer's already successful career, but not really a surprise, since the horse had run well all winter long and was peaking at the right time. Heatseeker beat Go Between by three-quarters of a length.

Hollendorfer's records in Northern California will stand a very long time - longer, perhaps, than Northern California racing - and more recently he has broadened his impact with a Southern California presence, led by assistant Dan Ward. Asked if he could imagine back-to-back wins in California's biggest event, Hollendorfer took all of half a second to reply.

"No," he said, and he meant it, because anything that Whittingham could do only once must be very hard to do.

"Charlie is one of my heroes," Hollendorfer said. "His odds were better, sure. But people sent him all those good horses because he was the best."

This time around, Hollendorfer will be saddling Blue Exit, whose only impact at stakes level in this country was a close second-place finish to Cowboy Cal in the Strub Stakes on Feb. 7. To say that Blue Exit had a troubled trip that day misses the point. What he was doing before he got diverted off course late in the stretch already was impressive enough to write home about.

"He was making a nice run and then got bumped pretty hard," Hollendorfer said this week. "It was surely disappointing. But at that point we'd had just the one good race with the horse, so in the end we were very pleased with the way he ran."

Heatseeker was an Irish import who gradually evolved into one of the most consistent older performers on the scene. He was not an imposing animal, but he was a gifted athlete who added a dazzling win in the Californian to his Santa Anita Handicap, then came out of a prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup with ligament damage and had to be retired.

At this point, Blue Exit still offers more questions than answers, although his bloodlines are straightforwardly royal. He gets his good looks from his sire, Pulpit, and his size from from his dam's half-brother, Dynaformer. Blue Exit began his career in late 2007 in France, where he managed to win a listed event before being purchased last year by a North American partnership that includes Michael Byrne, John Carver, George Prussin, James Hill, and Richard Bonnycastle Jr.

Now under Hollendorfer's care, Blue Exit ran twice at the Oak Tree meet last fall without making an impact, then resurfaced in January with blinkers, Mike Smith, and a whole new groove, winning a tough allowance race by three. Smith was committed to ride his old pal Tiago on Saturday in the Big Cap, before the horse was withdrawn because of poor appetite. Robby Albarado picks up the mount on Blue Exit.

"We knew he had a lot of talent, and it's come out in the last couple of races," Hollendorfer said of Blue Exit. "The thing I like about him is that we've trained him relatively hard - he hasn't missed a work - and through it all he's grown in stature and kept his weight really well. He's got a huge shoulder, a nice hip to hock line, and there isn't a single rib showing on him. We think he's starting to get it."

At one point Blue Exit also got a new exercise rider, by the name of Gary Stevens, who scouts talent for IEAH Stables when he's not in front of an HRTV camera. As it turned out, Blue Exit was not for sale, but Stevens stuck around for some nice morning rides.

"He was a little bit of a playboy, and his people weren't quite sure where they stood after those first two races," Stevens said. "The first day we went out on the racetrack, he tested me a little bit. He's the kind of horse you can't force to do anything. It needs to be his idea, or he needs to be made to think it's his idea.

"I'll use one of those soft cushion whips and give him a little pop on the shoulder once in awhile, just to give him a quiet reminder that he's got a passenger," Stevens added. "When they ask me to go five-eighths or three-quarters, I tell Dan to have his clock ready at about any pole, because when he decides it's time to work, that's when we'll start."

Like his work two weeks ago at Santa Anita, recorded as seven-eighths in 1:30.60.

"The way he did it, that work was from the five-furlong pole to the six-furlong pole," Stevens said. "And in my mind, it felt like around 1:26. It was like after I worked him the first time. I got off him and said, 'This horse could win the Santa Anita Handicap.' "

Yeah, but what would Stevens know? He only won four of them, most recently with Rock Hard Ten in 2005, his final year of riding.

"He's got the look - massive, but well proportioned," Stevens said of Blue Exit. "He carries himself so proud. He's one of those horses, when he walks by, people go, 'Who's that?' "

On Saturday, we may find out.