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Martin Garcia got the final week of the Santa Anita meet off to a rousing start, booting home three winners. He has entrenched himself among the top 10 on the circuit, and with Garrett Gomez moving his tack to ride more back East, and stakes around the country liable to take the likes of Rafael Bejarano, Joel Rosario, and others away, Garcia may well take advantage at Hollywood. In other words, don't be surprised if he's a top-five rider in Inglewood.
There also were hat tricks Friday from both Martin Pedroza and Tyler Baze.
Bejarano's week was merely the cherry on the cake to his superb season. He locked up leading rider status seemingly weeks ago, and five wins in the final week proved to be stat-padding as he eventually won the riding title with 94 wins, well ahead of Rosario (73) and Victor Espinoza (51).
Big news from the week surrounds a few notable riders switching circuits. Longtime Southern California fixture Alex Solis announced he is moving his tack to Kentucky. He said the move may be permanent. The 46-year-old came to Southern California from Florida 25 years ago.
Rider Michael Baze leaves Southern California on a roll. The 23-year-old is scheduled to ride regularly for Chicago-based leading trainer Wayne Catalano. From April 4-14, Baze won with seven of his last 17 mounts. Jay Fedor will represent Baze when he rides full time at Arlington after stop-over stakes engagements at Keeneland and Hawthorne.
Jose Valdivia Jr., like Solis a longtime fixture on this circuit and called upon by such top trainers as Ron Ellis, will be shifting his tack as well. He'll move to the Philadelphia Park-Monmouth Park circuit this spring and summer.
Trainer John Sadler had seemingly clinched the training title weeks ago. He closed out the final five days with just one win, but that was more than enough as he ended up with 41 victories. Bob Baffert was next with 34 wins, followed by Mike Mitchell (27), Doug O'Neill (26), and Jeff Mullins and Julio Canani (both 22). Mitchell reinforced his figs with a triple of his own Thursday.
A triple by Ellis, including a successful defense of his Grade 3 San Simeon crown by Mr Gruff, highlighted Saturday's card.
Espinoza missed the first couple days of Santa Anita's final week, serving a suspension. For his part of the rough riding that occurred in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, he was handed a three-day suspension, which he served April 11, 14, and 15. Espinoza came back to ride Distorted Dave for John Sadler in at Keeneland on Saturday but they failed to threaten, finishing seventh.
Earlier in the week, Garcia dismissed Vic Stauffer as his agent.
Stauffer said: "He just told me, 'I want to make a change. There's no reason, and I have no new agent.' "
Stauffer remains the agent for Tyler Baze.
Rail Trip, winner of last year's , is nearing a comeback at the upcoming Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, and trainer Ron Ellis is all smiles regarding Rail Trip's condition.
Unraced since finishing third in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar last September, Rail Trip has been working steadily at Hollywood Park and is being pointed to the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on May 8. Ellis hopes to use the race as a prep for a defense of his Hollywood Gold Cup crown July 10.
"He's perfect and right on schedule," Ellis said Friday.
Daytona, a top turf horse in California in 2007 and 2008, has rejoined trainer Dan Hendricks's stable at Santa Anita with the hope that the 6-year-old gelding can return to racing in the second half of the year.
Daytona has not started since finishing 10th to Goldikova in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Last May, Daytona was diagnosed with a tear in a tendon, Hendricks said.
Daytona won the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby, Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, and Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap in late 2007. He won three of his first four starts of 2008, including the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park.
As of early this week, Richard Mandella still had Kentucky Derby hopes for Setsuko, who was tied for 27th in graded earnings, which determine the 20 starters in the Derby.
"For the time being, I'm going to keep going like I'm going to get in," Mandella said. "But he may not, so I'd have to come up with a Plan B somewhere."
As for Witty's first defeat in the Grade 1 Madison Vinery Stakes at Keeneland April 8, Mandella said, "She came back full of mucus, gunk, tried to get sick on me. She's fine; she's not real sick, but there's a bunch of mucus in her trachea."
The Usual Q.T., winner of last fall's and a very respectable fourth against world-class horses in the $5 million Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on March 27, will target the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park on May 31, according to trainer James Cassidy.
The winner of four consecutive stakes from October through December last year, The Usual Q.T. has surprised Cassidy with how well he has recovered from that grueling trip and tough race.
"You'd think he'd be whipped from the trip, but he didn't show it," Cassidy said.
Opening week at Hollywood Park is highlighted by Gold Rush Day on Saturday, where California-breds take center stage.
Alphie's Bet, winner of the Grade 3 Sham and sixth in the Santa Anita Derby, is targeting the Snow Chief. A big run there could mean a try at the Grade 1 Belmont at 1 1/2 miles on June 5, trainer Alexis Barba said.
Top 3-year-old Caracortado was being considered for the Snow Chief but was declared out by trainer Mike Machowsky.
HORSE OF THE MEET
The debate for the Santa Anita horse of the meet was between Tuscan Evening and Bourbon Bay. While both won four races, the award went to Tuscan Evening, as all four of her wins were stakes. Bourbon Bay's four wins all came going long on turf, which of course is terrific, particularly as he matched only Astray (1974) and Kotashaan (1993) as winners of the three primary turf marathons of the meet (San Luis Obispo, San Luis Rey, and San Juan Capistrano).
But the breadth of Tuscan Evening's campaign was something to behold. Not only were all four wins this meet stakes wins, but they came going about 6 1/2 furlongs, one mile, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles. Proviso may be her only peer at the top of the local filly-mare turf division.
Tuscan Evening's win in last Saturday's was professional as always as she set the pace and dared them to come get her. And they couldn't do it.
What's worse for her foes is that she seems just as comfortable on the Hollywood grass and her distance capabilities give her all sorts of options.
HORSES TO WATCH
Trainer: Doug O'Neill
Last race: April 14, 7th
Finish: 2nd by 1 1/2
He was up against it days before the race was actually run. That's because he got by far the worst of the draw for this mile grass race - the extreme outside (post 11). To his credit, he nearly overcame that hardship. Under leading rider Rafael Bejarano, he was very wide early. He did manage to move in a bit down the backside on the far turn but couldn't finish with the winner in the lane. It was still a fine effort. He can get back on the winning track with a better draw against similar at Hollywood Park.
Trainer: Steve Knapp
Last race: April 16, 6th
Finish: 2nd by 1 1/2
She nearly pulled off her third straight race, despite a surface switch and a class hike, but also ran into a real sharp winner (Lilly La Footz). From her inside draw in this allowance turf route, she used her speed to stalk the pace, moved up eagerly into the lane, took the lead in midstretch as if she might win, but couldn't fend off the big winner. It was still a big run, shows she retains her edge, can handle this class level, and is apparently as good on turf as on synthetic.
Trainer: John Sadler
Last race: April 17, 6th
Finish: 3rd by 3/4
After 20 months on the bench, he came back March 6 with a fine rallying second. That seemed to set him up nicely for this - but traffic troubles did him in. He stalked the pace in fourth early, but he was jammed up in traffic in midstretch and unable to make a run. He finally found room in deep stretch after steadying off heels, but by then the winner had already stormed by. He can make amends at Hollywood Park.