07/06/2011 12:25PM

Excitement of summer just starting


As the excitement of the holiday fades, along with the smell of festive gunpowder, there are more than a couple reasons to keep the celebrations going.

On Wednesday, when entries were to be taken for Saturday’s 72nd running of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the name of Twirling Candy was going to be among them. He is the best older male in the West, but even so, the race won’t be a walkover. Far from it, especially with Santa Anita combatants Game On Dude and Setsuko in the field, along with the new and improved version of First Dude and the distance-loving mare Miss Match.

Still, it’s Twirling Candy folks will come to watch. The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride is a charismatic performer whose victories have a memorable flamboyance, especially the one of last Dec. 26 in the Malibu Stakes, essentially his kickoff as an older colt. Twirling Candy defeated Smiling Tiger and Caracortado going seven furlongs on the Santa Anita dirt, and if those names sound familiar, your short-term memory is sound. Just last Saturday, the same Smiling Tiger romped in the Triple Bend and the same Caracortado ran Courageous Cat to a neck in the Shoemaker Mile.

Of course, there’s always something. Twirling Candy has three major wins at nine furlongs, including Hollywood’s Californian on June 4, but none at the Gold Cup’s 1 1/4 miles. He’s only tried once, and on that day he was rattled and battered in the Santa Anita Handicap last March. It should be noted that at the end of his Californian, his Strub, and his Del Mar Derby, Twirling Candy did not appear particularly winded.

If Twirling Candy handles his Gold Cup challenge, the likely route would be to run him in the Pacific Classic and the Goodwood, then roll for the whole pot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. There was a day a top California horse would venture East for the Woodward at Belmont Park (see Island Whirl, Precisionist, Bertrando, River Keen, Gentlemen, Quiet American, Festin, Tiznow), but that storied race was sucked up by Saratoga. John Sadler, Twirling Candy‘s trainer, doesn‘t see how it would fit.

And that’s too bad. While a Gold Cup victory would cleanly separate Twirling Candy from the rest of the West Coast division, Hollywood’s synthetic surface will give cover to those who would place him a cut below the best on the national stage.

At least among this season’s older fillies and mares there are no qualifiers. The division is deep and satisfying, and a big effort by Santa Margarita winner Miss Match against the boys in the Gold Cup will do nothing to shake the fact that Havre de Grace, Blind Luck, Awesome Maria, and Switch are leading the way. Amazingly, their division could have been even deeper.

Unrivaled Belle’s tightly wound personality finally got the better of her in the Belmont paddock prior to the recent Ogden Phipps, when the gray mare flipped and fractured her withers. She was retired.

Always a Princess, on the other hand, is an angelic chestnut bred and owned by Ellen and Arnold Zetcher who grew up fast last winter, winning the El Encino and the La Canada Stakes for the Bob Baffert barn. She loved nothing more than to rock and roll on the lead, tactics that proved impossible to overcome on the freshly laid Santa Anita dirt. She tried to do the same thing in the Santa Margarita, on March 12, but fractured the sesamoids of her left fore ankle in the stretch. After staggering to a stop, she collapsed, scaring the daylights out of the Zetchers. Arnold headed straight for his filly.

“We’ve had a few horses get injured on the racetrack,” he said. “But never anything like that. As it turned out, her getting off her feet was probably the best thing she could have done. But at the time, it was gut-wrenching to see her go down like that.”

Dr. Wayne McIlwraith performed surgery at his clinic near Los Alamitos, and Always a Princess became the perfect patient. Now she is at a lay-up facility in Bradbury, just east of Santa Anita Park, each day marking a step closer to making it out of the woods.

“I visited her last week,” Zetcher said. “She’s been through a lot, and that ankle looks pretty rough. But she’s getting around fine. The next goal is for her to be able to travel back to Kentucky, where she will spend her life as a broodmare.”

Finally, this has been a good week because the Del Mar Fair came to an end Monday, and that means clean-up was well under way Tuesday afternoon when a local fan paid the fairgrounds a visit, hoping for signs that the racetrack was emerging from the midway in anticipation of its July 20 opening day.

Nearly all of the livestock had cleared out, the exceptions being a tribe of small ponies penned by a barn near the backstretch racing office and the mighty Hercules, a towering, 14-year-old Belgian fairgoers could pay to admire inside his canvas-covered, double-wide stall, located a stone’s throw from the executive parking lot.

For all the turmoil inherent in the corporate-style ownerships of Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, Del Mar’s situation remains the most schizophrenic. The meet has undeniable clout, and its purses are unmatched in California. At the same time, any expansion of what is clearly a good thing is discouraged not only by the local fair preceding the Thoroughbred meet, but also by the traditional running of the Los Angeles County Fair up the road in Pomona, butted against Del Mar‘s early September close.

It’s one thing to present the million-dollar Pacific Classic, a race worthy of attention from Cigar, Best Pal, Unbridled, Free House, Concern, Lava Man, Medaglia d’Oro, and Candy Ride. It’s another to have to clear out the gyro stands and hand-painted tattoo booths before you can do it.