08/13/2008 12:00AM

Complete turnaround for Storm Mesa

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Benoit & Associates
Storm Mesa goes for her sixth straight win Saturday in the Del Mar Oaks.

DEL MAR, Calif. - If it hadn't been so discouraging, it would have been comical. Whatever Storm Mesa tried to do last year as a 2-year-old filly, she failed.

She lost all three of her starts at 2. Behind the scenes, things were even worse. Storm Mesa wanted nothing to do with a starting gate, always seemed nervous, and once banged her head in her stall and needed stitches.

"There was always something she was getting herself into," trainer Bret Calhoun said.

Calhoun can shake his head in amazement at those days. It was so long ago, so far removed from Storm Mesa's current season, that he can easily forget he is talking about the same filly.

As goofy as Storm Mesa was then, she is brilliant now. Saturday at Del Mar, Storm Mesa will start in the $350,000 Del Mar Oaks, seeking her sixth consecutive win and fourth consecutive stakes win.

She is no longer a klutz. She's a graded stakes winner, and an improving one at that.

"When she got it, she got it," Calhoun said.

The difference has been a year of maturity and a move to distance racing. Storm Mesa has won 4 of 5 starts around two turns. Three of her stakes wins have been at a mile or farther. The Del Mar Oaks is the filly's first start in a Grade 1, and the first starter in a Grade 1 for Calhoun and owner Rick Davis of Dallas.

"I think it's mental maturity," Calhoun said. "I don't think there was any way she could have won at 2. She made a lot of mistakes, but her disposition totally changed.

"We couldn't get her to the gate. We couldn't her out of the gate. She was high-strung in her stall."

Calhoun's involvement with Storm Mesa began last fall. Storm Mesa made two starts for trainer Tim Yakteen in California in the summer and early fall, finishing fifth and 14th, before being sent to the easier Midwest circuit. After finishing second and third in sprints in her first two starts for Calhoun, he tried her at a mile and 40 yards at Fair Grounds on a rainy day in February, confident that she was ready for a breakthrough performance.

"I didn't think she could lose," he said. "I thought she'd win by 10. She got confused when she was in front. When they got by her, she tried to come back. That was the end of it."

Storm Mesa finished third that day, beaten a half-length. She has not lost since.

The winning streak began in a one-mile maiden race at Fair Grounds in March. In the spring, she won twice at Lone Star Park - an allowance race and the seven-furlong Cinemine Stakes by a whopping 13o1/2 lengths. Since then, it's been a road show. A one-length win in the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows on June 27 was followed by a victory in the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar on July 26, her turf debut.

The win in Iowa proved that she could travel. The win in the San Clemente proved she could run on turf - and away from the Midwest.

"She was able to ship and do well," Calhoun said. "To do everything so well, it was like a completely different horse."

The San Clemente remains a personal favorite for Calhoun because of all the trouble Storm Mesa encountered. Storm Mesa was racing along the rail on the backstretch when she was shut off in traffic. Jockey Eddie Martin Jr., who has the mount again in the Del Mar Oaks, guided Storm Mesa to the outside of the leaders on the turn and they rallied from sixth to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

"I'm probably biased, but it was about as impressive of a race as I've seen in a long time," Calhoun said. "To get stopped, lose her momentum, that could have taken a lot out of her."

Calhoun said he has little concern about Storm Mesa trying 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Del Mar Oaks.

"When you step up, there is always a worry, but she was full of run when she hit the wire" in the San Clemente, he said.

Calhoun, 44, has 115 horses spread out at four locations - Churchill Downs, Louisiana Downs, Remington Park, and Retama Park. He has trained since the early 1990s and has become a fixture on the Louisiana-Texas circuit. A Dallas native, he is starting to expand beyond his home state, beginning with the Churchill Downs string. He trained the stakes winner Cactus Ridge earlier this decade and has the undefeated Euroears, a winner of six races, preparing for a comeback.

The San Clemente was Calhoun's first success in a Grade 2.

"I haven't had that caliber of horse before," he said.

He does now.