08/27/2009 11:00PM

Breaking loose might be good omen


DEL MAR, Calif. - With the elimination last year of the Carleton F. Burke Handicap during the Oak Tree meet, the death of the Jim Murray Memorial at Hollywood Park last spring, and now the cancellation of the 2009 Hollywood Turf Cup, usually run in early December, the California circuit continues to discourage ownership of long-distance grass horses.

Sunday's 70th running of the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap now stands as the next-to-last opportunity for the best of the division out West, followed only by the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship during the Oak Tree meet. Yes, the Breeders' Cup Turf is run in California this year, but that race brings along its own set of severe restrictions. Ordinary horses need not apply.

Opportunities on the grass over a distance of ground were not the issue when Jack Carava and his patron, Ron Valenta, bought the 4-year-old gelding Sir Dave privately in Florida last spring. The plan was ambitious, and made perfect sense.

"Looking at the Breeders' Cup Marathon at Santa Anita last year, we thought it was a very weak race," Carava said Friday morning after training hours. "It's a unique kind of situation, a mile and a half on the main track, and there were synthetic track races leading up to the Marathon. We were looking for a horse who could maybe down the road be effective going that far on the main track."

At the time of his purchase, Sir Dave's resume included just 10 starts, with three wins under widely varying circumstances - a maiden score on the Calder main track, an allowance win on the Philadelphia Park turf, and another allowance win in the slop at Gulfstream Park. He was 0 for 5 on grass, but never too far off the mark.

Sir Dave at least paid his freight right off the plane for Valenta when he finished second to Spring House in the $100,000 Golden Gate Fields Turf Stakes in May. Carava then pointed him for the Cougar Handicap at Del Mar, a stepping-stone to the BC Marathon.

"He'd run okay on dirt, but unfortunately for us he didn't seem to take to the Polytrack surface here all that great," Carava said. "He possibly had some excuses, since it had been two months since he ran. I trained him up to the race on works, and he did seem to get a little tired. In fairness to him, he also seemed to train a little better on the surface at Santa Anita than Del Mar's, so I suppose there's still a chance we could look at the Breeders' Cup race."

The business at hand, though, is the Del Mar Handicap, at 1 3/8 miles, and Sir Dave is familiar with the challenge. At the same distance, he was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths at Golden Gate, and last fall at the Meadowlands, while trained by Kathleen O'Connell, he just missed second in the 11-furlong Princeton Stakes over a yielding course.

Sir Dave was confronted in his stall late Friday morning, in the company of Carava's assistant, Carlos Santamaria, and it was a dizzying experience. Looking down from a great height was a prominent blaze fronting a lean, chestnut body, trimmed with touches of dashing white. A quick check confirmed that Sir Dave was not standing on a pallet.

"Very tall, yes," said Santamaria. "Not too heavy though, and he eats a lot."

This would seem to be a good combination in an athlete. Sir Dave is by the Unbridled stallion Untuttable and out of the mare Queen Kaboom, who traces to, among others, the stakes-class California sprinter Selecting, from the 1970s. More significantly, Queen Kaboom is by the Nijinsky stallion Sword Dance, winner of the 1988 Del Mar Handicap over subsequent Breeders' Cup Turf champion Great Communicator. John Gosden trained Sword Dance.

With just 12 starts to his name, Sir Dave is a raw recruit compared to the opposition. Sunday's field includes Spring House (42 starts), Cougar winner Unusual Suspect (38 starts), Porfido (34 starts), Artiste Royal (33 starts) and Obrigado (32 starts). There was a time that such durability was the point of the exercise. Now, such stakes horses might as well be dinosaurs.

"The horse has been training up to this race as good as he could, and everything was going according to plan . . . until this morning, when he reared up and got loose," Carava noted. "The boy said he was feeling so good that he just went up a couple times. The last time he did it, the rider thought the horse was losing his balance, and could have fallen over, so he jumped off."

Apparently, it was around 5:15 a.m. when a backstretch visitor might have encountered Sir Dave, tacked up, footloose and fancy free, touring the east end of the Del Mar barn area.

"We were chasing behind him, and he just missed a couple things that might have gone really bad," Carava added. "But we caught up to him pretty quick, and he doesn't have a mark on him."

These things happen, even in the best of families. Affirmed once got loose at Santa Anita and wandered around until coming to a stop at Charlie Whittingham's barn.

"Over my career, I think I've had two horses get loose on the morning of a race and we thought about scratching them," Carava added. "We didn't, and both of them won."