06/22/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Accelerate looks to get into the passing lane

Benoit & Associates
Accelerate finished third to Tamarkuz and Gun Runner in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

The co-features on Saturday at Santa Anita Park are named for Affirmed and Precisionist, both of them impossible acts to follow.

Ten are entered – five in each race – so cue the chorus always ready to decry smaller average field size as the root of all evil rather than the natural by-product of dwindling foal crops.

In fact, racing departments at beleaguered tracks – which is to say all tracks without casino backing – have become so obsessed with quantity over quality that the delicate compromise between gambling and sport has tipped heavily toward the bottom line.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, observed in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times that “[horseplayers] want field size even more than quality.” The grim, logical extension of such a reality is a further suppression of races like the Affirmed and the Precisionist – already reduced to Grade 3 hundred-granders – which are tapping into a shrinking inventory of horses ravaged by widespread competition and the annual attrition of the Triple Crown.

The Affirmed, for 3-year-olds, was known as the Silver Screen during its early years at Hollywood Park before being changed in 1993 to honor the 1978 Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year. Santa Anita wisely kept the name.

The Precisionist, for older runners, was called the Mervyn LeRoy during its long tenure at Hollywood Park. In addition to directing such classics as “Little Women,” “Mister Roberts,” and “The Bad Seed,” LeRoy got most of the credit for “The Wizard of Oz” as producer and co-director. He was also the long-serving president of Hollywood Park, which did not translate well to the Santa Anita stakes menu.

Precisionist was a good choice for a new name. He was a tall, rangy chestnut with a take-no-prisoners attitude who won the 1985 running of the Mervyn LeRoy by four lengths in a track-record 1:32.80 while carrying 126 pounds. Later that year, Precisionist won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Aqueduct after 4 1/2 months on the sidelines, which earned him the championship of the sprint division.

The record will show that there were only five horses in the 1985 Mervyn LeRoy. There also were five in the Charles H. Strub Stakes that year, won by Precisionist in a thriller over Greinton and Gate Dancer, and five horses in the 1986 Woodward Stakes, won by Precisionist over subsequent Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret. The lack of quantity over quality did not prevent Precisionist from entering racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

Affirmed had a career worthy of song, and yet 11 of his 29 races featured fields of five or fewer, including his epic 1978 Belmont win over Alydar and his final start in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he showed the younger Spectacular Bid who was boss. His legacy out West spread across both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park with victories in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, the Hollywood Derby, the Californian, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Strub Stakes, and the Santa Anita Handicap.

Battle of Midway would appear to tower over his opposition in the Affirmed, even though he is dropping back to 1 1/16 miles from his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Smart Strike received high marks in that effort, only the fifth start of his life, for pressing the pace and sticking around to the end at 40-1.

The Precisionist, also at 1 1/16 miles, looks like it could be a rollicking good affair, pitting Accelerate against the Bob Baffert pair of Collected, the winner of the Californian in his last start, and Cat Burglar, who longs to be known as something more than a work target for stablemates Arrogate and Abel Tasman.

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Accelerate, by Lookin At Lucky, has not won a race since last September. This is hard to believe, but it has not been for lack of trying. He was second to Midnight Storm in the San Pasqual to start the season, then third to Hoppertunity in the San Antonio while lapped on runner-up Mor Spirit – the same Mor Spirit who ran a hole in the wind in the recent Met Mile. The Oaklawn Handicap on April 15 was up next.

“He got off the plane in Arkansas with a 102-degree temperature,” said Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler. “So, while Stellar Wind and Cistron were doing all the hard work back there winning their races, Accelerate was just hanging out.”

After recovering, Accelerate finished second in a highly rated May 5 allowance race and then was withdrawn from the May 24 Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

“Two things went into that,” Sadler said. “I felt it might be just a little quick to run him back, and I am not convinced that he’s a mile-and-a-quarter horse. So, I decided to be a little conservative with him.”

That’s fine, but now it’s time for Accelerate to step up and prove he can do more than simply be competitive with the big boys. In his only turn on the national stage, Accelerate finished third to Tamarkuz and Gun Runner in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, which this year will be run at Del Mar. Last year at Del Mar, Accelerate won a maiden race by nearly nine lengths and the listed Shared Belief Stakes.

“That’s our goal, certainly,” Sadler said. “But right now, I’m really looking forward to seeing him run on Saturday.”