12/09/2009 12:00AM

Hoping for good news from Hong Kong


In a column written way too early for its own good, it was noted in this space 14 months ago that Keith Card, still recovering from the effects of a stroke, had nothing to worry about if his California Flag won the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Card, 81 at the time, was assured that he would practically float down to the winner's circle.

Then California Flag went out and finished 10th of 14, after towing the field through early fractions that would have done Go Man Go proud, and Card was spared the effort. A month later, California Flag was wheeled right back by trainer Brian Koriner to win a small stakes at Hollywood Park, but then he went to the bench, a victim of bone chips in a couple of ankles, and was not seen again by the betting public for nine months.

Things went well, and by the time California Flag showed up for his second shot in the BC Turf Sprint, Card had a game plan. After following his dappled gray gelding to the track, Card and his wife, Barbara, planted themselves railside, not far from the winner's circle. A few minutes later, California Flag held up his end of the bargain, winning by nearly two lengths as the 3-1 favorite. For Card, after a racing journey of nearly 50 years, it was suddenly a short, giddy trip to the game's center stage.

"It was an awesome feeling," Card said. "I was really elated for him to have the opportunity to be in that race and win the way he did. After the race, though, I was so depleted - physically, emotionally, and mentally - that some friends of mine had to get a wheelchair for me and wheel me down to the interview room after the race."

Card will be under a different kind of stress on Saturday night, California time, when California Flag faces another all-star field in the $1.5 million Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin Racecourse. Card did not make the journey, but Barbara Card was on her way there Wednesday, which means Keith will be getting the call of the race by telephone at their Hi Card Ranch, near the town of Temecula. The four races in the Sha Tin festival will not be carried live by an American racing channel.

"I've been talking to Brian twice a day," Card said. "He said the horse traveled wonderful. He's been to the track every day since he got there, and he's eating the bottom right out of his feed tub."

One thing Koriner probably won't be looking for at Sha Tin is a replication of California's Flag's unscripted training move three days before the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, when he dropped his rider at the six-furlong chute gate and uncorked a riderless three-eighths breeze going the wrong way up the Santa Anita stretch.

"When you get a phone call from a trainer, you say, 'Oh, my God. What's happened?' " Card said. "He said we had a little scare but everything was okay. That calmed me down a little. And the more I thought about it, I think he was high as a kite prior to that episode. His little blow-out took the edge off him just enough so the jock could take a hold of him coming out of the gate in the race and leave him something for the end."

California Flag, footloose and fancy free, trotted to a stop once he left the track and was corralled by a stablehand. Veteran jockey Aaron Gryder was nearby and offered to walk California Flag back to the Koriner barn. That same Aaron Gryder, now riding in Hong Kong, has been getting aboard California Flag in his training at Sha Tin. Small world.

While it is clear California Flag has mastered the twists and turns of the Santa Anita hillside course, winning the last two runnings of the Morvich Handicap in addition to the Breeders' Cup event, the son of Avenue of Flags will be facing a new set of challenges. He has never raced outside the state before, let alone the Republic of China. He will be running over a 1,200-meter straightaway course for the first time. And compared with the BC Turf Sprint, the Hong Kong Sprint may be a much tougher field on paper.

The lineup includes the worldly Cannonball, second in Ascot's Golden Jubilee and third in the Turf Sprint, as well as Prix de l'Abbaye winner Total Gallery. Scenic Blast, winner of Ascot's King's Stand, is in there along with fellow Australians All Silent and Apache Cat. If California Flag can handle this bunch, he might lay claim to being the world's top sprinter - at least for the day.

Not bad for the best of a three-horse crop that hit the ground at Hi Card Ranch back in 2004. The first part of his career was hindered by a breathing problem traced to a throat abscess. After that was cleared up, California Flag took off. He has won seven of his last nine starts, dating back to July 2008, with his only losses coming in the 2008 Breeders' Cup and in an experiment going a mile.

There were no assurances, though, that California Flag would be heard from again after undergoing multiple ankle surgeries at the end of 2008. He recuperated at Hi Card, right outside his owner's window, in the paddocks where he was raised, then returned to competition in the Green Flash Stakes at Del Mar.

"I think the pressure was bigger than in the Breeders' Cup, being his first race back," Card said. "No matter how good they look or how good they're doing, you never truly know until they run."

Beginning with the Green Flash, California Flag has been in front at every point of call in all three races on his comeback tour. If he does it again in Hong Kong, only those who haven't been paying attention will be surprised.