Updated on 03/09/2016 4:24PM

Hovdey: Calculator has Miller dreaming in Technicolor


If the picture from Santa Anita goes all streaky and gray on Saturday afternoon, don’t panic. Do not adjust your set. You are probably watching the final furlong of the $300,000 San Carlos Stakes, and that could be Kobe’s Back and Calculator locked together in full flight to the wire in the best seven-furlong race to be run anywhere so far this year. Also, the grayest.

Gray horses seem to be all the rage in these visually addicted times. Social media don’t go a day without a posting of some white or gray horse somewhere doing something cute, or fast, or just standing there being white or gray, as if color alone confers a level of privilege not available to browns and plain bays. I could be wrong about that.

The passion for grays can be traced to literature, like “Gulliver’s Travels,” in which the Master Horse of a civilization run by horses is, of course, gray. There is also the Book of Revelations, written by the Dr. Hunter S. Thompson of his day, who downed some kind of Sumerian mushroom and transcribed the resulting hallucination, according to King James:

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse. And his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

Gray horses ever since have been looked upon as strange, otherworldly creatures who are as likely to sprout wings and a single horn as they are to win a second-level allowance race. The legendary breeder Federico Tesio thought there was something wrong with them physically. The legendary racing secretary Bob Umphrey knew there was something delightful about them and staged races at Calder just for grays.

Other places have followed suit. The Gray Ghost Starter Handicap on Halloween has become a popular part of the Monmouth Park turf meet at the Meadowlands. Newmarket in England gets into the act with the Betway Grey Horse Handicap – there were 15 of them in the 2015 version – while Australia’s Racing Victoria salutes its grays with the three-race Subzero Challenge, named for the 1992 Melbourne Cup winner of the same shade.

The conditions for the San Carlos Stakes welcome all colors of the Thoroughbred rainbow, as long as their people think they can compete with a proven sprint star like Wild Dude. The local stakes winners San Onofre and Coastline, another gray, are also entered.

Kobe’s Back already might be at their level, now that he has stopped treating the starting gate like an easy chair. His inability to break with the field was squandering his best form until his last start, when all the hard work put in by Peter Eurton and Gary Stevens paid off with a decent beginning and a smart score in the six-furlong Palos Verdes.

“Pete put the blinkers on him for that race, but he still went over there with his ears up, like ho-hum,” Stevens said. “I had no idea what to expect, although his heart rate did tick up slightly when we got behind the gate.

“I knew how good he was training,” Stevens added. “I thought, ‘Just break somewhere in the same area code with those horses.’ My son called later and said when he saw we were still in the picture at the half-mile pole, we had a shot.”

Kobe’s Back, whose steel gray coat is lightening with age, is a big, muscle-bound 5-year-old who has been in and out of the news for three seasons. Calculator, on the other hand, is a blast from the 2014 past whose resurrection at age 4 has injected potential excitement into the middle-distance mix.

This is the same Calculator who gave honest chase to American Pharoah in both the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner Stakes before small troubles put a large hole in the rest of his 2-year-old campaign. Still a maiden, he began his 3-year-old season with a victory in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, then promptly suffered a non-displaced condylar fracture that required a screw and a long rehabilitation.

Whether or not Calculator would have been simply more high-class American Pharoah roadkill throughout 2015 is empty speculation, even though his trainer, Peter Miller, allows himself the occasional daydream. Miller is primarily concerned with keeping his powdery gray colt healthy, happy, and on a track that could lead to a race like the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

“He’s grown up pretty much the way I thought he would,” Miller said the other day at San Luis Rey Downs while Calculator circled the shed row under rider and tack. “The fracture healed great. It’s the foot that gave him trouble as a 2-year-old we have to watch. I’ve got him running in a bar shoe with a protective plate covering part of the frog.”

Just like American Pharoah?

“That’s right,” Miller replied, delighted at even the most minimal comparison. “Just like American Pharoah.”

Calculator came back to the races in a seven-furlong allowance race Feb. 13. He broke poorly, but Flavien Prat sat chilly and moved his horse steadily into the race. At the end, Calculator got up to win by a neck.

“He had to run harder than he was ready to run at that distance,” Miller said. “His class took care of the rest. And with that race in him, I haven’t had to train him as hard for the San Carlos, although I have taken him to the gate. The last thing I want to see is Kobe’s Back outbreak him.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Salutos Amigos was entered in the San Carlos Stakes. He is not entered and instead is scheduled to run in the Tom Fool at Aqueduct.