07/01/2011 3:26PM

Hollywood Park: California Flag ready for his comeback

Barbara D. Livingston
California Flag got a four-month freshening after tailing off in the fall of 2010.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – One year older and one shade whiter, gray veteran California Flag will try to prove he is not one step slower when he returns from an eight-month layoff Sunday in the $77,000 Robert K. Kerlan Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

At six furlongs on turf, the Kerlan once would have been a cakewalk for California Flag, whose wicked speed propelled him to six stakes victories including the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint and a 9-for-21 career in which he earned more than $1.1 million.

But at the end of 2010, California Flag tailed off. He lost his speed, lost his flash, and at age 6 appeared to be winding down. In fall, he finished last at Keeneland, and eighth in the BC Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs. There was little trainer Brian Koriner could do.

“Last year we had problems,” he said. “He got on that those soft turf courses back there and started hitting himself. He seemed to just kind of fall apart, and we couldn’t fix him.”

Koriner sent him home to Hi Card Ranch, owned by California breeders Keith and Barbara Card. Farm manager Scott Siler said, regarding California Flag, “there was nothing really wrong other than his feet were bothering him a little bit. He had done a lot of traveling, and might have been a little tired, so we just turned him out and let him be a horse.”

After a four-month break, California Flag began acting like he wanted to race again. He returned to the track in early March, one week before Keith Card died at age 83. Barbara Card remains owner of Hi Card Ranch, and California Flag.

Sunday, California Flag makes his first start since the break. The rest did wonders. “He doesn’t act like he is 7, and he does not look like he is 7 except that he’s gotten a lot whiter,” Koriner said. “The way he’s been training, you feel like you’re training the good horse again.”

California Flag has not mellowed. “He still likes to play, he’ll spin out from underneath you, still,” Koriner said.

He acted up before a June 21 workout with exercise rider/assistant Colleen Hartford. California Flag wheeled and unseated Hartford, who somehow maintained control. But it came with a price. “He jerked her shoulder right out of the socket. She got back on him, and worked him,” Koriner said.

Tyler Baze will ride California Flag on Sunday, and expectations are so high that Koriner allowed himself to peak ahead into the summer stakes schedule. “All through the years, he’s been a freak work horse on the synthetic at Del Mar,” Koriner said.

“So this year, if he runs real big [Sunday[], there’s a shot we’ll try the Bing Crosby . . . something different.” The Grade 1, six-furlong Bing Crosby is July 31.

California Flag “acts like he hasn’t lost a step,” Koriner said. “I don’t know how hard he’s going to leave … but he’s doing really good.”

Others in the Kerlan include Gallant Son, Dancing in Silks, Quick Enough, Don Tito, Cherokee Heaven, Raetodandty and Streakin’ Mohican.