01/31/2013 3:06PM

Hovdey: Arcadia puts Suggestive Boy back in his comfort zone

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Ron McAnally says he is now convinced one mile on turf is Suggestive Boy's best game.

Bellbottoms are in. Ditto wide ties and beehives. This must be true because North American turf milers are suddenly all the rage. The geeks have become the new glamour division, no longer merely a sub-category of a sub-category, which is why it is no surprise that 14 of them are lining up on Saturday at Santa Anita Park in the $150,000 Arcadia Stakes, their first major opportunity of the new year.

Blame it, of course, on Wise Dan, the multi-dimensional 2012 Horse of the Year who spent most of his championship season taking a deep breath and dusting off eight furlongs on grass as if it was no more than a stroll in the park. His bracing performance in the Breeders’ Cup Mile continues to resonate, especially at Santa Anita, where the turf still hums to the tune of his course record 1:31.78.

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Of the 14 in the Arcadia, exactly one of them had the temerity to take on Wise Dan at his own game in the BC Mile. That would be Suggestive Boy, the Argentinean classic winner who hit the California scene last summer with a bang for his owner, the Mexican mining magnate Jose Cerillo. In his first appearance for Ron McAnally, Suggestive Boy finished second in the Shoemaker Mile at Betfair Hollywood Park, a result that looks better with every viewing not only because of the quality of the winner, the accomplished Jeranimo, but also because third place that day went to Little Mike, the best horse not to win an Eclipse Award in 2012.

Suggestive Boy stuck with his strength and went on to win a minor stakes at a mile on the Del Mar grass, but then the rails came loose. The temptation of the million-dollar Pacific Classic on Polytrack was too great – he was a non-factor fifth – and then there was a dirt track whiff in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, which resulted in an even more indifferent fifth-place finish.

“We were a little ambitious,” McAnally offered, with his usual quiet understatement. “He got a mile and a quarter in Argentina, but his real game looks like it’s a mile on grass.”

Unfortunately, the only mile race left at that point was the Breeders’ Cup version. Held at odds of 35-1, Suggestive Boy broke without haste then was asked by Mike Smith to sit just off the California ace Obviously on the pace that, by Trevor Denman’s definition, was “not going that fast for this kind of race.”

It changed in a hurry. The BC Mile was run in successive quarters of 23.34 seconds, 22.82, 22.65, and 22.97. In his life Suggestive Boy had never seen such velocity. During the final furlong he was passed by not only Wise Dan but Animal Kingdom, Excelebration, Mr. Commons, and Jeranimo to finish seventh, beaten slightly less than six lengths. Joe Talamo, who rode Obviously in the Breeders’ Cup, is back aboard Suggestive Boy.

“I’m not blaming Mike,” McAnally said. “I know he was worried about Obviously. But I wish he hadn’t used him quite so early. I’m not saying we would ever have beaten Wise Dan – that’s a very good horse – but I think he would have been a lot closer to being in the money.”

The last horse to win three Eclipse Awards in single season was John Henry, who just happened to be trained by Ron McAnally. In order to win his three, back in 1981, John Henry raced from February to December and made 10 starts, winning six major stakes on grass and two on dirt, those two being the Santa Anita Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Wise Dan made six starts, winning four stakes on grass and one on synthetic.

By now it is clear Suggestive Boy does not have the same versatility. It is typical, however, of McAnally to take an occasional swing outside the box, whether to satisfy his own curiosity or placate the wishes of a patron. Running the 1980 turf champ John Henry in the 1981 Santa Anita Handicap was not that big of a deal – he had finished second to Temperence Hill in the 1980 Jockey Club Gold Cup – but the trainer also tried the champion mares Bayakoa and Paseana way outside their comfort zones against males in major 1 1/4-mile main track events. Both of them finished up the track, then continued to win major events where they belonged.

Suggestive Boy emerged from his encounter with Wise Dan & Co. none the worse for wear and, according to the trainer, has been training well for his return. The same can be said for his trainer.

In mid-December McAnally, 80, underwent a procedure known as MAKOplasty for the partial replacement of a knee joint. The recovery from the anesthetic stress required by the surgery was tougher than McAnally had hoped, but lately he has back in a regular routine at the barn.

“Gary Stevens, Jim Cassidy, Bruce Jackson – they were using me as a guinea pig, waiting to see how I turned out so they could do it themselves,” McAnally said, managing a laugh.

“I needed both knees done but I just had them do the left so I could still drive while I recovered, but I didn’t even feel like doing that for a while. I was pretty miserable. What happened though is I’ve become a big believer in acupuncture. It was amazing how it helped. I’m getting around pretty good now, exercising the knee so it doesn’t get stiff.”

McAnally’s assistant, Dan Landers, picked up the slack at the barn.

“I don’t like to think they can do without me, but Dan has done an awful good job,” McAnally said.

Last weekend, the stable’s Sugarinthemorning finished second to Teddy’s Promise in the Santa Monica Stakes, while Hollywood Turf Cup runner-up Interaction is pointing for the San Marcos on Feb. 9.

“I’m very happy with Suggestive Boy,” McAnally said. “When he worked three-quarters the other day Dan said he got the last eighth in 10 and 3.”

Should Suggestive Boy fare well, McAnally will not hesitate to tackle the best eight- to nine-furlong turf races around. As for surgery on that other knee, McAnally answered in a flash.

“No way,” he said.