10/03/2008 12:00AM

Card targets a different Cup this year

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ARCADIA, Calif. - While a respectable though unsung herd of local talent parades to the post in a variety of California Cup races on Sunday at Santa Anita, the true emerging star will be staying in the barn.

It's not like he's ducking anybody.

California Flag, the pride and joy of Keith and Barbara Card's Hi Card Ranch, has politely declined mixing it up with fellow Cal-breds in order to take on the brand new $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint on Oct. 25. A case could have been made to run California Flag in the Cal Cup Mile on the grass, or perhaps the Cal Cup Sprint. But his scorching performance in the Morvich Handicap on Sept. 24, opening day of the Oak Tree meet, was enough to justify a shot at the moon.

"We're going for the head trip," Keith Card said. "But it's the horse who's taking us there."

No argument there. California Flag, a son of Avenue of Flags, set a course record for the downhill 6 1/2 furlongs on the grass, with a clocking of 1:11.10. Among those in his wake was Get Funky, who had been considered the West's top contender for the BC Turf Sprint.

With more races to choose from now that the Breeders' Cup has expanded to 14 events, it stands to reason that more and more regional breeding industries will be represented among the contenders. California could use the boost. Of the 180 Breeders' Cup races offered since 1984, Californians have won exactly three. The winners were Thor's Echo, Tiznow . . . and Tiznow.

Besides California Flag, the only serious Cal-bred Breeders' Cup entrants this year figure to be Idiot Proof, second in the BC Sprint last year to Midnight Lute, and Cost of Freedom, winner of the Ancient Title Stakes last weekend. They are all solid, but none of them brings to the Breeders' Cup the star power of such past Californians as Bertrando, Best Pal, Fran's Valentine, Big Jag, Soviet Problem, and Nashoba's Key.

As one of the pillars of the California racing and breeding industry, Card needs no excuse slip to skip this 19th running of the Cal Cup. He was there from the beginning as a strong supporter of the program devised by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Oak Tree Racing Association. Card, a past president of the CTBA, even stepped up to take one of the first Cal Cup races in 1990 with his filly Linda Card, winner of the Cal Cup Distaff at 6 1/2 furlongs down the Santa Anita hill.

"From the time it was announced, we pointed her for that race," Card recalled. "Sometimes things turn out like you planned. Most times they don't."

Linda Card was a product of a typically modest California union. Her dam was the Piaster mare Pick Up Your Cards. Her sire was the Irish horse Noble Monk. Their filly, a foal of 1986, was named for the Cards' daughter-in-law.

Over three seasons, Linda Card won eight races from 33 starts. She never replicated herself as a broodmare, but she did have winners. When her career as a producer was clearly at an end, Card pensioned Linda Card to the vast fields of the Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, where she served nobly as a "babysitter," as Card put it.

"About two months ago she colicked pretty bad, and we had to put her down," Card said. "She had a good life."

About two months ago was also when California Flag started living up to his earlier promise, according to Card.

"He was just one of three foals we had at the ranch that year," Card said. "Always seemd real athletic. But in his races he'd stop like he couldn't get his air. That's when we found an abscess on his throat."

Amazing what a little clean oxygen will do. California Flag, trained by Brian Koriner, has won 3 of 4 since early July and is now poised to take Keith Card to the Breeders' Cup. That will be a long way from the Montana prairie north of Billings, where Card grew up on his family's cattle ranch.

"It was the Depression, so you learned how to entertain yourself," Card said. "Rubber toy guns, alley-oop with the ball over the house. Montana's the kind of country where you learned how to work hard. I've always said it's a great place to be from."

Card came to Southern California and did well for himself in the Temecula Valley. He raced his first horses in the 1960s and established Hi Card Ranch in Murrieta as a bustling bloodstock establishment. The Cards have cut back to just 10 acres, but from those acres emerged California Flag.

If the Cards catch lightning in a bottle and California Flag comes through, Keith Card might take a minute to get downstairs. He suffered a stroke in early September.

"I was playing backgammon with my daughter," Card said. "When I got up, I went right to the seat of my pants. The doctor is watching me close, in case it was the start of something else. It might have affected my brainpower - I didn't have that much to lose - and it left me with a little hitch in my get-along on one side. I was a little slow getting to the winner's circle the other day."

Don't worry about it. Win a Breeders' Cup race and you practically float.