02/02/2012 3:49PM

Hovdey: Beer Meister seeks another shocker in Strub Stakes


It is impossible to celebrate any running of the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita without wallowing around in a deep pile of horse racing history.

The name itself comes from the founder of the track, Dr. Charles H. Strub, and his family, most recently represented in the management of Santa Anita by Robert P. Strub, who died in 1993 after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Until it was shortened in 1998, the Strub was run at 1 1/4 miles. There are three grave markers beneath a stand of palms near Santa Anita’s 1 1/4-mile chute where the remains of three horses are laid to rest. Two of them belong to Roving Boy, a champion 2-year-old and son of the 1962 Strub third-place finisher Olden Times, and Quicken Tree – “A Great Stayer,” according to the gravestone, and winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup – who was a fast-closing second to Drin in the 1968 running of Strub.

The third marker belongs to Lamb Chop, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1963, who suffered a fatal injury during the running of the 1964 Strub Stakes. The race was won by Gun Bow, by 12 lengths, in a time equaling Round Table’s track record.

The Strub – originally called the Santa Anita Maturity – was designed as a noble effort to ease the top 3-year-olds of the previous season into competition with their experienced elders. This worked pretty good when there were a lot more top 3-year-olds left standing at the end of their 3-year-old seasons, before the ravages of the modern-day Triple Crown gold rush began to thin the ranks. Chances are slim that today’s Strub would attract horses like Lamb Chop or Gun Bow, or such national names as Mark-Ye-Well, Hillsdale, Determine, Damascus, First Landing, Bagdad, Spectacular Bid, and Broad Brush.

However, a cold-eyed look at the Strub today would reveal what is no more than a nine-furlong dirt race restricted to 4-year-olds on the first weekend of February and offering a relatively modest $200,000 for its Grade 2 rating. Furthermore, the Strub’s position on the calendar appears to dilute the quality of the San Antonio Stakes run the following day at the same grade, purse, and distance, but open to all comers. And in comparison to the $500,000 Donn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles the following weekend at Gulfstream Park – Santa Anita’s sister track – the Strub comes off as downright anemic and nothing more than one of several stepping-stones to either the Santa Anita Handicap or Dubai World Cup in March.

Blame it on packaging, on timing, and on the game’s evolution into insulated regional circuits that rarely intersect until a handful of imperative national events come along. Stables with top players can afford to lie in wait these days for the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, or big casino stakes of West Virginia and Delaware before leaving the comfort of their home field. And so we have a field like Saturday’s Strub, with eight entered, all of them to be led over from their familiar stalls or shipped across town from Hollywood Park.

Except for Beer Meister.

Beer Meister is a son of champion Pleasant Tap (who else?) who has made the journey to Santa Anita from the friendly confines of Turf Paradise. Although not bred in Arizona, Beer Meister was the state’s most accomplished 3-year-old of 2011, winning both the Turf Paradise Derby early in the season and then the Luke Kruytbosch Stakes in December.

On paper, Beer Meister does not exactly stack up to Strub rivals Tapizar, Prayer for Relief, or Ultimate Eagle. And the fact that he won the Turf Paradise Derby off a maiden win in three starts speaks to the stealth nature of his candidacy. But a lightly raced gelding with maturity and a decent pedigree is always dangerous. At least that’s how his trainer, Manny Ortiz, is approaching the race.

“I think he’ll run big,” said Ortiz, who trains Beer Meister for Linda Eggar and William Burns. “At least, I hope I don’t go home with my tail between my legs.”

Beer Meister chipped his knee running in the Peter Pan at Belmont Park last spring and before that he went for the gold in the Sunland Derby, settling for fifth.

“He came off knee surgery and a long layoff to win that race at Turf Paradise in December,” Ortiz noted. “That’s when I started looking at the Santa Anita race.”

Ortiz, 61, is a former jockey who rode in California during a 20-year career and now headquarters his training operation in his native Phoenix. His son, Manny Ortiz Jr., also was a jockey until a training hours accident at Santa Anita five years ago ended his career and threatened his life.

“A horse flipped on him coming off the track and just wallered on him,” Ortiz said. “Crushed him really bad. He’s got a lot of plastic in him now, but he’s doing good. Just bought a home in Phoenix. I broke a leg in four places and broke my collarbones, but I didn’t get hurt near as bad as he did.”

While a good showing by Beer Meister at Santa Anita would not erase the taste of his son’s accident, Ortiz is prepared to at least make an impact.

“We knew he had a lot of talent, but he didn’t really settle in until I cut him, before he even started,” Ortiz said of Beer Meister. “Then he made a complete turnaround.In his first race, he broke his maiden by what looked like 19 1/2 lengths.”

It was actually 11 1/2, but who’s counting, especially since it was New Year’s Eve of 2010 and Beer Meister paid off at a fat 5-1. That was chump change, though, compared to the Turf Paradise Derby, when Beer Meister came from last to win by two lengths at 40-1, pulling away under Glenn Corbett, defeating, among others, his Strub opponent Indian Winter.

“We knew what we had, so we all made money that day,” Ortiz said.

Fair warning.