05/03/2012 11:34AM

Hollywood Park: Awesome Gem fine at 9 for Mervyn LeRoy

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Those upstart 3-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby have nothing on a veteran gelding who just might just steal the show at Betfair Hollywood Park on Saturday.

Awesome Gem, 9 years old and still in graded-stakes form, enters the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap with little to prove except that for some horses, age does not matter.

“Look how good he looks,” trainer Craig Dollase said early this week as Awesome Gem came off the track following a crisp five-furlong workout. “He doesn’t know he’s 9.”

Awesome Gem does not act like he is 9, either. He sizzled five furlongs Tuesday in 59 seconds under new rider Martin Pedroza, blowing past a workmate in the stretch to signal his rivals in the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy they will be dealing with one tough customer.

Nine entered the 1 1/16-mile race that marks the West Coast debut of Grade 1 winner Morning Line and comeback of Hollywood horse-for-course Kettle Corn. Others include Bob Baffert-trained and Ahmed Zayat-owned Prayer for Relief and Jaycito; stakes winners Gladding, Great Warrior and Thirtyfirststreet; and Honour the Deputy.

It is a good field in the first of three spring-summer races for the Hollywood handicap division. The Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Californian will be run June 2; the Grade 1, $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup will be run July 7 at 1 1/4 miles.

Awesome Gem won the 2010 Gold Cup, and in 2011 won a pair of Grade 3’s – the Longacres Mile and Lone Star Park Handicap before finishing second in fall in the Grade 1 Goodwood, only a half-length behind Game on Dude. Dollase gave Awesome Gem six months off, he returned with a solid allowance win April 12 at Golden Gate.

“It’s crazy – he just keeps getting better,” Dollase said. “It’s a testament to my help, the owner’s patience, and doing the right thing by the horse.”

Awesome Gem has worn the black and yellow silks of West Point Thoroughbreds since his debut back on July 9, 2006. Over six years of racing (2012 is his seventh campaign), Awesome Gem made six to nine starts per year, won 10 races and $2,761,370 from 48 career starts, and became a poster boy for equine geriatrics. He is fast, durable, and smart.

“He’s easy on himself, he takes care of himself,” Dollase said. “And his mechanics are impeccable, how he moves. He doesn’t hit the ground the wrong way, and he obviously has a big heart. All those attributes are why we’re still running at 9.”

Pedroza will be riding Awesome Gem for the first time in a race, against a competitive field. Chief among his rivals are Morning Line and Kettle Corn. Winner of the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, Morning Line is a 5-year-old now trained by John Shirreffs.

Morning Line’s training this week required tweaking. A workout Monday was canceled at the last minute because of changed circumstances, so he breezed three furlongs Wednesday. “He’s a high-profile horse, I’d hate to run him if he’s not just right,” Shirreffs said. Joe Talamo is named on the 4-for-12 millionaire. Morning Line would be making his first start since August.

Kettle Corn won the Grade 3 Native Diver at Hollywood in December, and trainer John Sadler gave him the winter off to aim for spring-summer on Cushion Track. “He’s a synthetic horse, he doesn’t have any numbers on dirt,” Sadler said. “I thought it would be good to have a fresh horse for this division, for the synthetic.”

The Mervyn LeRoy is race 10 on Saturday. First post on the 11-race card is early, at 11 a.m.

Senorita: Bobina heads pack

The Grade 3 Senorita Stakes is race 5 Saturday, and the first prep race leading to the Grade 1, $400,000 American Oaks on July 14. But the $100,000 Senorita, at a mile on turf, will be run without the top 3-year-old turf filly in California.

Lady of Shamrock raced three times in winter at Santa Anita, winning all three including two stakes. Trained by John Sadler, she returns in the Grade 2 Honeymoon Handicap at 1 1/8 miles June 9. That makes the Senorita is a glorified allowance. Or does it?

Bobina won both career starts for trainer A.C. Avila under Edwin Maldonado, but she was always Victor Espinoza’s mount. Avila said he worked her regularly until a broken hand put him on the sidelines.

Espinoza rides the Malibu Moon filly in the Senorita against allowance winners Byrama, Graser, and four others.

◗ The Cool Frenchy Stakes, race 6, is the first leg of the pick six.

The five-furlong main-track sprint includes turf-to-synthetic Obviously and stakes winner Excessive Passion.