01/05/2017 4:36PM

Hovdey: At 6, Ring Weekend still playing at high level

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It was supposed to rain in Arcadia, Calif., all day Thursday and possibly into Friday, and since weather predictions never lie, there was at least a chance that Saturday’s $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes on the Santa Anita turf could turn into a main-track mudfest.

Racing chief Rick Hammerle certainly deserves a break after last weekend’s storms played havoc with the track’s best product. The American Oaks was shortened from 10 to nine furlongs to eliminate the necessity to cross a dicey strip of main track from the hillside portion of the course. The Robert J. Frankel Stakes was switched from turf to mud, forfeiting its Grade 3 rating in the process. And the San Pasqual Stakes lost Arrogate, its marquee entrant, because of a sealed and sloppy surface.

The 1 1/8-mile San Gabriel, more often run on New Year’s Day, marks the beginning of the winter grass series for older horses that has served Santa Anita so well since the course was built in 1953. The 10-furlong San Marcos and 12-furlong San Luis Rey follow, with the Arcadia and Frank E. Kilroe for milers spotted along the way.

The 1971 San Gabriel was the first of six major stakes won that year by the Chilean star Cougar II, seven if you count the Woodward, where he was robbed by the stewards (old wounds die hard). John Henry won his first graded stakes race for Ron McAnally in the 1980 San Gabriel, then added two dozen more. In Excess was still officially 3 when he beat older horses in the San Gabriel at the end of 1990, then racked up five major main-track stakes in California and New York during 1991.

No matter how you hold the past performances for the 2017 San Gabriel, the race goes through Ring Weekend, who runs for West Point Thoroughbreds and the St. Elias Stable of Vincent Viola, recently tapped as the next secretary of the Army. Others in the field of 12 have had their turn in the limelight – Flamboyant, Point Piper, Conquest Daddyo – but none of them has spent the last three seasons winning major races on both coasts.

There are only two horses from the 2014 Preakness Stakes field still in action at the top of the game. One of them is California Chrome, and the other is Ring Weekend, who finished a distant fourth that day at Pimlico.

Their paths never crossed again, except perhaps on the Santa Anita backstretch last fall when both horses were preparing for the Breeders’ Cup. California Chrome finished second in the Classic, while Ring Weekend split the field in the Mile, beaten about four lengths by Tourist. Ring Weekend followed that try with a gritty win in the Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar in late November, then remained in Southern California with a string of Graham Motion runners handled by assistant Aimee Dollase.

“I hope we haven’t used up our mojo from Del Mar,” Motion said from his Fair Hill training grounds. The stable also won the Matriarch with Miss Temple City and the Jimmy Durante Stakes with Journey Home during the fall Del Mar session.

Ring Weekend, now in his sixth year, is a deadly honest gelding who always seems to be in the thick of things. In addition to victories in the Tampa Bay Derby, Saranac, and Hill Prince at age 3, the son of Tapit won the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita at 4 and set a Saratoga course record in the Bernard Baruch last year at 5.

The only blemishes on his record are a baffling effort in the 2014 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, where he went too fast early and pulled up without finishing (he came back with a smart second to Tourist a month later), and an absence from competition for nearly a year following his win in the 2015 Kilroe.

“He had a nasty abscess,” Motion said. “Basically, he had to grow his foot back.”

Such afflictions can become chronic. Motion was asked if the foot has had problems since.

“When I brought him back last year at Pimlico, it kind of flared up a little bit,” Motion said, referring to Ring Weekend’s close second in the Dixie. “That’s why we didn’t run him again until Saratoga.

“It was the worst abscess I’ve ever had to deal with,” the trainer said. “It was really painful. But now it seems to be really good, knock on wood. We don’t put any nails in the front of his shoe, where the abscess was. It’s still a delicate area, and we treat it very carefully. But otherwise, he wears a normal shoe.

“I was in California last week and got to see him train,” Motion added. “We’ve had to work around the rain a little, but we’ve been pointing for the San Gabriel for a while now. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got no excuses.”

No one ever questioned the bravery of the Thoroughbred, and Ring Weekend is living proof of a warrior who loves his job. His name comes courtesy of West Point Thoroughbreds head man Terry Finley, a West Point grad who was inspired by the celebration that honors the incoming cadre of senior cadets at the U.S. Military Academy with the presentation of their class rings. Apparently, it’s quite a weekend. Same goes for the horse.