09/28/2012 3:53PM

Hovdey: In California, the grass isn't so green


John Henry, the horse for whom Su nday’s John Henry Turf Championship at Santa Anita is named, ran 83 times over eight seasons, won 39 races at distances from four furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, and earned what was then a record $6,597,947.

Clearly, he was a fictional character.

His legend lingers, however, even in the face of a modern grass racing trend in California that has gutted the major events for the division, thereby making it difficult to either attract or develop a quality pool of older horses who can travel a route of ground at speed. John Henry did things horses only dream of doing.

For instance, he won 15 races rated Grade 1, plus the first running of the Arlington Million, which was given a Grade 1 rating its second time around. It is entirely appropriate that Santa Anita’s best grass race at its fall meet be named for John Henry – he won the race three times when it was called the Oak Tree Invitational – accompanied by the reasonable expectation that it would be a Grade 1 event.

But no, the John Henry Turf Championship is a Grade 2 event, which is a little like asking Johnny Depp to headline the opening of an Olive Garden. Up until last year the race – then known as the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship – was in fact rated Grade 1. But then the wheels of the American Graded Stakes Committee began to grind, and out came the verdict: Sorry, Santa Anita, your major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Turf just doesn’t cut it with the big boys.

“We get the letter, it’s a done deal,” said Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita’s VP of racing and racing secretary. “There is no appeal.”

The field for Sunday’s running of the John Henry looks like an entertaining scramble among Grassy, Casino Host, Turbo Compressor, Interaction, Bourbon Bay, and Slim Shadey. All of them are winners of significant turf events, either Group 1 or Grade 1 or 2. And who knows? With the advantage of a race over the firm course, some of them could be in the thick of things for the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 3.

Still, the California grass program continues to take hits from not only the Graded Stakes Committee, but also from purse competition around the country. The United Nations Stakes at Monmouth won this summer by Turbo Compressor was worth $505,000. The Mervin Muniz at Fair Grounds won by Casino Host last April was worth $400,000. Slim Shadey went on the road for the United Nations as well as the $561,000 Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs. On Saturday, the field at Belmont in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic was going for $600,000.

The purse for the John Henry: $150,000, better known as the minimum for a Grade 2 event. It has company. The 2012 San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano, Santa Anita’s best long grass races of the winter meet, offered $150,000 each. The Sunset Handicap, once a Grade 1 highlight at Hollywood Park, is now a $100,000 event. In all, this year’s advertised purses for the seven major California races between 10 and 12 furlongs – San Luis Rey, San Juan, Whittingham Memorial, Sunset, Del Mar Handicap, John Henry, and Hollywood Turf Cup – come to $1,250,000. In 2002, those same seven were worth $2,050,000.

With such declining numbers owners cannot be expected to invest in long-distance grass runners for use in California. And without quality runners both the grades and purses will continue to sink, since one mercilessly follows the other. A vicious cycle? You bet. Hammerle and his fellow West Coast racing execs can only pray for a breakout horse to emerge and carry with him a glowing record that enhances any race in which he competes.

Had things gone differently – at least in terms of Thoroughbred frailty – the John Henry could have featured the last two winners of the race, in addition to the solid bunch answering the bell. Alas, defending titlist Acclamation is not quite ready for a return following a soft tissue scare at Del Mar, and 2010 winner Champ Pegasus, who finished second to Acclamation last year, is close to a return after undergoing surgery for a fractured cannon bone. Both are 6 years old.

“He came out of that race with a little crack about four inches above his ankle,” said Champ’s trainer, Richard Mandella. “It had to be a blow, because he’s too old to shin-buck, and it was too clean a crack. We put a little screw in it, and it’s healed well, but we wanted to give him plenty of time. He should be ready to run in three or four weeks.”

So that means Champ Pegasus could make the Breeders’ Cup Turf, a race in which he finished second in 2010 to Dangerous Midge, right? Mandella treated the idea as if it came from a small child.

“Let’s just say we’re starting to prepare for next year’s Breeders’ Cup,” he replied.

The people around Acclamation are allowing themselves to be a little more ambitious. Voted champion older male of 2011, the son of Unusual Heat has not raced since winning the Eddie Read at Del Mar in late July. A suspicious ankle knocked Acclamation out of defending his Pacific Classic crown, but according to owner Buddy Johnston there is hope his horse can make the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“He strained a ligament a little bit right there in the pastern,” Johnston said this week. “It filled up a little bit then went back down, but I know if we’d tried to run him in the Classic we probably would have damaged him.

“It would be fun to get him there,” Johnston said of the Breeders’ Cup. “And he’s doing real well. We’ll play it a day at a time, but right now I don’t see any reason he won’t make it.”