11/02/2012 12:05PM

Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint: California Flag gets final shot at glory

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Flag has run in every Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and won the race in 2009.

ARCADIA, Calif. – At age 8, the venerable gelding California Flag has been out to see the world. Bred and generally campaigned in California, he has traveled east the past two years to race in Kentucky. But that was nothing. During the winter of 2009-10, California Flag went the other direction when he left California, shipping to Hong Kong, where he finished a close fifth in the $1,548,000 Hong Kong Sprint, and to Dubai, where he was a good third in the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint in March 2010.

After he starts Saturday in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, California Flag has passage booked to a destination only about 70 miles southeast of here. Win or lose, California Flag will be retired and taken back to the place where he was born in 2004, the Hi Card Ranch in Murrieta.

“It’s a decision that I made primarily because of his age, and he’s had many problems with his legs,” said Barbara Card, California Flag’s majority owner. “It would break my heart if something were to happen to him. I just want him to go out as a champ.”

California Flag has earned a comfortable retirement. He’s poised to become just the fourth horse in Breeders’ Cup history to make five starts in Breeders’ Cup races, joining Kona Gold (Sprint), Better Talk Now (Turf), and Perfect Drift (Classic). Kona Gold and Better Talk Now each won once during long-running Breeders’ Cup careers (Perfect Drift’s best finish was a third), and California Flag won the Turf Sprint in 2009. There has never been a BC Turf Sprint that didn’t include California Flag, and if he were to tally a second victory in the race Saturday, he’d also become the oldest winner of a Breeders’ Cup race, besting several 7-year-olds.

“We’ve given the Breeders’ Cup $150,000 in entry fees,” trainer Brian Koriner half-joked. “We did get quite a lot of if back when he won.”

Koriner, who got his start in the Quarter Horse game, has sparingly campaigned California Flag this year – to say the least. His only start of the season came April 21, when he won the San Simeon Stakes over the 6 1/2-furlong turf course at Santa Anita.

That quirky course has made California Flag. Breaking from the gate, the course immediately starts a downhill slope that can jolt an animal unfamiliar with the decline. And as the field swings around the course’s one bend, gearing up for a stretch run, the turf course crosses over Santa Anita’s main track, a jarring interruption that has dislocated many a runner. But California Flag loves going down that hill: He’s raced seven times on the course and come away with five wins. One loss came in his career debut back in August 2007, when Doug O’Neill trained him. The other was in the 2008 BC Turf Sprint, where California Flag, a front-runner, hooked into a sub-21-second opening quarter-mile that crushed all the speed horses in a race won by huge longshot Desert Code, who picked up the pieces of the duel.

California Flag, whose gray coat has not faded too much to white, wouldn’t have amounted to much had he not been gelded, said Card, 71, whose husband, Keith Card, was the one who arranged California Flag’s breeding and oversaw the family’s horse operation until he died at 83 in March 2011.

“He really wasn’t interested in racing at all until we gelded him, but from that point on, he concentrated more,” Card said. “He does have a mind of his own, though. He still tends to buck and kick a little and has thrown the morning rider.”

In fact, California Flag dumped his exercise rider during morning training and ran off just days before he won the Turf Sprint in 2009. Jockey Aaron Gryder happened to be standing at the gap leading onto Santa Anita’s backstretch when California Flag came his way, and he managed to snag the reins before any damage was done.

“Even after he got loose, I was really confident in him,” Koriner said. “He was just training so well.”

When California Flag has been laid off for long periods, the culprit often has been his ankles, which have bothered him on and off for years. An outside observer might have figured California Flag was finished during fall 2010, when he finished 11th as the favorite in the Woodford Stakes at Keeneland and then eighth in the BC Turf Sprint that year at Churchill.

“He started hitting himself when he was running, and he just didn’t do any good when he ran back East,” said Koriner, a position California Flag validated when he came in 12th in the 2011 BC Turf Sprint, again held at Churchill. “He didn’t like that softer turf at all.”

California Flag got the winter off and came back at age 8 looking much like his old self winning the San Simeon. After that, with the Breeders’ Cup back at Santa Anita, Koriner started pointing to one final bang – the one that comes Saturday.

“We just wanted to get everything perfect for one last hurrah,” Koriner said. “This is it.”

California Flag has trained with the zest of a younger horse in recent weeks, posting bullet works in his last two Santa Anita turf drills. But whatever forces guide the random drawing of post positions don’t possess a sentimental streak: For the last start of his racing career, California Flag got the worst post in the Turf Sprint. He must break from the rail with several very fast horses drawn to his outside.

At its peak, Hi Card housed some 60 horses, but since Keith Card died, Barbara Card has steadily culled the herd. California Flag is the last horse that remains of the Card family racing operation. There’s been talk of turning him into the Koriner stable pony, but what exactly becomes of the horse after Saturday’s race still hasn’t been settled. All Barbara Card knows is that she wants California Flag to exit the stage still in good health.

“I don’t even want to think about what it’s going to be like not having him around next year, but I have made my decision and I plan to stick with it,” she said. “I’d like California Flag to live to be a happy old horse.”