02/03/2016 3:06PM

Hovdey: Cal Cup winners off to bigger and better


A big win in a regional horse race can be exciting – just ask the backers of Sen. Ted Cruz – but you never know how it will translate to the national stage.

It feels strange, therefore, to suggest that no fewer than three and maybe even four of the five winners of Cal Cup races at Santa Anita Park last Saturday could be heard from in large ways down the line.

Because he is 3, and because he reminds so many people of another chestnut Cal-bred who romped in the California Cup Derby under the same Victor Espinoza two years ago, Smokey Image has been getting most of the attention. That’s fine. He likes it. Bring on the California Chrome comparisons.

“It’s a little early to pigeonhole him that way, but wouldn’t it be nice?” said Carla Gaines, who took over the training of Smokey Image from Northern California-based Greg James last fall.

The Cal Cup Derby was the sixth start and sixth win for Smokey Image, a son of Southern Image bred by the C Punch Ranch of his owner, Betty Irwin. The colt’s female family traces to the turf star Bienamado and his sire, the even starrier Bien Bien, through a mare named Madame Sunshine who was closely inbred to the Forli mare Special.

How close? Madame Sunshine’s sire, Nureyev, was a son of Special who sired 130 stakes winners and 20 champions. Madame Sunshine’s dam, Nakterjal, was a daughter of Nureyev’s half-sister, Kilavea.

But enough about blood. Smokey Image will need to prove his Chromeness on the racetrack, and to that end, Gaines will point him toward the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 3, the same race won by California Chrome.

“The race was meant to see what he could do with two turns and hopefully set him up for open company,” Gaines noted. “He liked it the other day, so we’ll see.”

Earlier on Saturday in the Cal Cup Oaks, Pacific Heat was running on grass for the first time after flopping as the favorite in the Starlet Stakes. She is a granddaughter of Nureyev through Unusual Heat, so it didn’t seem like much of a gamble. Accordingly, Pacific Heat ran back to her 13 1/2-length maiden win and her easy score in the Golden State Juvenile Fillies, winning the Oaks by 5 1/4 lengths under Flavien Prat. It’s okay if trainer Peter Eurton starts to think big.

Ditto trainer Phil D’Amato with Sunday Rules, who overpowered males in the Cal Cup Sprint under Edwin Maldonado for her eighth win in nine starts spread over four seasons for her owner and breeder, Nick Alexander.

Carrying her head low and leading with her chin, Sunday Rules runs with a refuse-to-lose attitude that failed only once, in her lone venture into a graded race last summer. She got a break after that and has won three straight since.

Sunday Rules is 5, at which point a racehorse should have pretty much established his or her place in the Thoroughbred pecking order. This makes both Sunday Rules and What a View satisfying surprises whose best days might lie ahead.

What a View and Kent Desormeaux made a shambles of the $250,000 Cal Cup Turf Classic with a 3 1/4-length score over defending champ Alert Bay. The race not only marked the biggest win in the training career of former rider Kenny Black, it also made good on the $25,000 supplemental roll of the dice from his breeders and owners, including the Old English Rancho family of the late Buddy Johnston.

Several days later, Black was still hoarse from cheering horse and rider home. This did not keep him from a nonstop narration of the trials and tribulations of What a View, whose life at the racetrack would make for a good episode of “American Horror Story.”

“One morning, when he first came in as a 3-year-old, some bandages on a sawhorse blowing in the wind spooked him so bad he was circling doughnuts all the way back to the barn,” said Black, who was working for trainer Don Warren at the time.

“The night after his first race at Del Mar, he got cast in his stall,” Black went on. “Then, later that same meet, a loose horse came barreling through the gap and almost hit him head on and scared him to death. He went all the way across both stable roads and was heading for Via de la Valle before he was caught. To this day, he won’t go to the track in the morning without a pony. Because I think he remembers everything that’s happened to him, his mind will wander if you don’t keep him focused in a race.”

Upon Warren’s retirement last summer, Black took over the Old English Rancho horses, the maiden What a View among them. Since then, the son of the Danzig stallion Vronsky has won four times, including a fast race over the Cal Cup’s course and distance on Santa Anita’s opening day.

“He’s getting a little vacation now,” Black said, “a couple weeks’ rest. We pulled his shoes and wormed him. But when we’re ready, he doesn’t take a lot of training.”

In fact, it sounds as if the trainer and his crew spend most of their time in What a View’s head. Whatever they’re doing obviously works. Once, before one of his races, Black was asked which horse he was afraid of most. His reply?