11/17/2011 1:28PM

Hovdey: Acclamation yields spotlight for the time being

Shigeki Kikkawa
Norvsky will be making his Grade 1 debut in the Hollywood Turf Cup.

As the audience settles in for Saturday’s Hollywood Turf Cup and the house lights dim, a corresponding crowd in a Broadway theater might hear something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, one announcement before we present the final major long-distance grass race of a memorable California season: For this performance, the part of Acclamation will be played by Norvsky.”

At the news there would be those who might head for the doors, demanding a refund. “Are you kidding. We drove all the way from Oxnard!” This is Pauly Shore subbing for Gielgud in “Richard III.” Bjork croaking “La Boheme” when you paid to hear Joan Sutherland.

Since the spring, it has been Acclamation taking the bows and holding the bouquet every time he emerged from Don Warren’s barn to take center stage in a race like the Turf Cup. A 5-year-old son of Unusual Heat, he has become the West’s most relentless galloper, very much in the mold of Lava Man, Bien Bien, or Great Communicator, while specializing in winning races named for iconic personalities that helped put California racing on the map – Charles Whittingham, Jim Murray, Clement Hirsch, Eddie Read.

Sorry to say, though, Acclamation will be languishing in his Santa Anita stall late Saturday afternoon, still nursing the lingering effects of a long season and a sore foot when the Turf Cup is renewed at a mile and a half, and Norvsky, the capable understudy, carries the Old English Rancho colors instead. But hey, let’s give the kid a chance.

Norvsky will be making his Grade 1 stakes debut against a field of battle-tested old pros that includes local stalwarts Bourbon Bay and Falcon Rock, the invading Sycamore Stakes winner Sanagas, and the mare Miss Match. The group includes two runners from Germany and one each from Ireland, Argentina, Chile, Kentucky . . . and Fresno. That would be Norvsky.

On the face of it, the only features Norvsky and Acclamation have in common come down to their age and the Central Valley pastures in which they grew up. In his own right, though, Norvsky has put together a record of five wins and 15 in-the-money efforts in 16 races, while winning two minor stakes at just shy of $400,000. This at least paid for his upkeep.

“Not bad for a second-stringer,” said Buddy Johnston, Norvsky’s owner and breeder.

A second-stringer out of a cast-off mare, no less. Norvsky’s dam, now gone, was Fimbrelith, a daughter of Flying Paster who was not an Old English Rancho production but did find her way back into the fold, nearing the end of her life.

“She’d had a number of foals for other people, by some pretty good stallions, but they hadn’t done well,” Johnston said. “I actually got her for nothing, when she was barren.”

Of course, there is no such thing as a free horse. They tend to eat and run up bills. But as a reclamation shot in the dark, when bred to Johnston’s Danzig stallion Vronsky, Fimbrelith lit up the board.

“Right off the bat we got Norvsky,” Johnston said. “When you know the family so well you have the confidence that they have the potential to produce something good.”

His faith was based on hard facts. Johnston’s father, Old English founder Ellwood B. Johnston, bought the Alibhai mare Fortune Teller in the 1950’s and watched her found a line of stakes winners that included Betty’s Fortune, Fortunate Betty, Lucky Mike, MacArthur Park, and Individual Style. Clear as Crystal, the dam of Fimbrelith, won three minor stakes.

Norvsky seems to be a late-bloomer, like his stable pal Acclamation.

“As far as I’m concerned, I like that better than one who fires early and falls back,” Johnston said. “I’m not sure he’s a mile-and-a-half horse, though. He’ll need to draw on the Windy Sands through Clear as Crystal on the bottom side. But he trains and acts like a mile and a half would be fine, and this is a Grade 1, so we thought it might be the right time to give it a shot.”

Meanwhile, back at camp, Acclamation remains the apple of Johnston’s eye. After adding the Pacific Classic on Del Mar’s synthetic main track to his list of accomplishments this year, Acclamation’s reputation went national, and anticipation was high that he might make an impact at the Breeders’ Cup. But a bruised foot kept him home, and he’ll be heading to the farm soon for a winter spent in a field of grass.

“It was tough watching the Breeders’ Cup without him in it,” said Johnston, who had briefly considered both the Turf and the Classic before Acclamation’s injury surfaced. “Although I don’t think conditions would have been ideal for him. The grass might have been a little softer than he likes, and they were losing shoes right and left on that main track.

“He’s still here at Santa Anita with Don,” Johnston added. “That’s because of me. I’d hate going to the track every morning and not be able to feed him his carrots. Besides that, we can’t just send him to the ranch and drop him down too fast. I’ve never had a horse with such a voracious appetite for his grain. So I want to just back him off slowly as we increase his hay.”

With five high-level stakes wins in seven 2011 starts, Acclamation enjoyed healthy support in the small sampling of the racing writers polled last week by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, but Johnston is not deluded when it comes to post-season honors.

“It’s pretty hard when you’ve got a California horse who didn’t really race back East,” he said. Acclamation’s only eastern start came on a sloppy track in the Charles Town Classic. “Of course,” Johnston added, “those horses could have come out here.”

When Acclamation returns to the races in the spring, he will be pointed for the Breeders’ Cup next fall at Santa Anita.

“He’s the kind of horse who’s gotten better every year, and I don’t see any reason he won’t be as good a horse next year as he was this year,” Johnston said. “I know the Breeders’ Cup is a long ways off, but you still like thinking about those things.”