12/01/2017 1:30PM

Hovdey: The Bayakoa brand always exuded class


“Come over here.”

Ron McAnally was at Bayakoa’s stall, late one quiet morning at Hollywood Park. Bayakoa was hanging her head over the webbing, eyelids drooping, as her trainer caressed her cheek.

“Ever feel anything so soft?” McAnally asked, inviting a visitor to see for himself.

The answer was no. Not a baby’s bottom. Not the finest down. Not a kitten’s tummy. That soft.

McAnally and his crew made Bayakoa feel like a queen, despite her flights of wild imagination, her occasional runaway frights, and her pronounced overbite, which, as described by her vet, Dr. Jack Robbins, would allow her to “eat a carrot through a Venetian blind.”

Owned by Frank and Janis Whitham, Bayakoa was a two-time champion and Hall of Famer who began life in Argentina, won 18 of 31 starts for McAnally in the States, and finished first in two of the most memorable Breeders’ Cup Distaffs ever run.

The first, in 1989 at Gulfstream Park, transpired in the face of a four-horse relay fielded by Wayne Lukas in an attempt to blunt Bayakoa’s domineering speed and set things up for something from behind, like Open Mind, who was about to be 3-year-old filly champion anyway. Bayakoa and Laffit Pincay responded by calmly tracking one of the four on the pace, fending off another who tried to draft in behind, and running them all silly through the stretch to defeat Gorgeous, trained by Neil Drysdale, by 1 1/2 lengths. The Lukas group finished third, fifth, ninth, and last.

Bayakoa’s defense of her Distaff title took place at Belmont Park in 1990, and the less remembered the better. Whether or not she was getting the best of Go for Wand as the final sixteenth of a mile approached is nothing more than ghoulish speculation. They had put on a rare show from the start and were six lengths clear of the next horse when it happened, when Go for Wand went down. Anyone who can watch that replay more than once has either a very strong stomach or a very cold heart.

There is a Go for Wand Stakes at Aqueduct and for 20 years there was a Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park. Now the Grade 2, $200,000 Bayakoa is run at Los Alamitos, where it will be renewed on Sunday afternoon.

If the rumblings are to be believed, the Bayakoa has been hanging by a thread, smacked around like a pinata by the operators of Los Alamitos, who believe the money might be better spread across the overnight races, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, who loathe to see a graded stakes disappear from a Southern California landscape already leaking top-class opportunities.

Whether ironic or not, if the Bayakoa were a Grade 3 race instead of a Grade 2, Los Alamitos probably would be able to afford it without too much grief. Grade 3 races need only offer $100,000 to fulfill the purse level requirement.

So the Bayakoa is a Grade 2 event – as opposed to the racemare Bayakoa, who won 12 Grade 1 races in 20 months between February of 1989 and October of 1990 – and figures to stay that way based on the field assembled for Sunday.

Champagne Room and Constellation bring Grade 1-winning credentials to the party, while Majestic Heat appears to have found new life at age 5, Pacific Wind has shown she might prefer dirt to turf, and Shenandoah Queen, a stakes-winner at Del Mar, can be forgiven for her flop last time out at Churchill Downs. Bayakoa would be proud to join the gathering. She’d also be 1-9.

A walkover in the park

Alex Solis, the recently retired Hall of Famer, won the first running of the Bayakoa Handicap in 1994 with longshot Thirst for Peace, a former claimer owned by Ron Charles and trained by Sandy Shulman.

Solis also won the more historic 1997 version of the Bayakoa aboard Sharp Cat, one of the best American Thoroughbreds to never win a championship. When Ajina slipped through on the rail to beat Sharp Cat in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park that season, she sewed up the 3-year-old filly crown. Still, Wayne Lukas and Richard Mulhall, Ahmed Salman’s racing manager, thought that a score for Sharp Cat against older mares in the Bayakoa might sway a few votes.

The track for the Bayakoa was rendered awful by a conspiracy of rains and desperate maintenance. The hard-packed base was covered by a slick, coarse sea of gooey mud. Only two were entered against Sharp Cat and both were scratched, both trained by Ron McAnally.

“I like my horses too much,” McAnally said. “There’s always another race.”

Sharp Cat stayed in, creating the first walkover in Hollywood Park history. But instead of loping around the track to collect the check, Solis was told to let Sharp Cat roll a little, and she did, to the tune of 1:42 and change for the 1 1/16 miles. She came back with heels burned right through her rundowns and did not race again for more than seven months.

Wally Dollase, who took over her training, waited and waited and finally brought Sharp Cat back in an overnight handicap at Del Mar during the summer of 1998. She won, then added the Chula Vista, the Ruffian, and the Beldame to her résumé.

The name of the overnight handicap was the Bayakoa.