03/09/2017 4:00PM

Hovdey: Handicap appetizers will be plenty filling

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For the dedicated fan, Santa Anita Handicap Day always would begin early. Excitement gets you out of bed because there was nothing like it on the California calendar. Everything that happened before and after was just waiting. That’s the kind of race it used to be – nothing less than the most exciting two minutes in the West.

The race still holds good value – with Shaman Ghost and Midnight Storm heading the field – but for the last several years, it has been surrounded by one of those trendy mega-cards spawned by the Breeders’ Cup. There will be a lot happening at Santa Anita on Saturday, with several key questions asked and hopefully answered.

First, there is the elephant who’s not in the room. A year ago, Melatonin was an overnight sensation at age 5 when he came off an allowance race to wire the Santa Anita Handicap at odds of 16-1. The son of Kodiak Kowboy followed that with a second in the Oaklawn Handicap and a score in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita for trainer Dave Hofmans and owner Susan Osborne.

He figured to be heard from in major distance events the rest of the year, but instead, Melatonin made just one more start in 2016, a distant fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He has not been heard from since.

“He wrenched an ankle in the Breeders’ Cup,” Hofmans noted. “He’s still here at Santa Anita with me, and right now he’s just walking 30 minutes twice a day. Since there was no fracture, we don’t need to worry about X-rays. It’s just a matter of letting nature take its course and heal the injury. So, we’ll give him plenty of time, get him back later this year, and get him ready for the 2018 Santa Anita Handicap.”

The caller was not familiar with the veterinary term. Was “nature” some new experimental treatment?

“It’s a force to be reckoned with,” Hofmans said with a laugh. “I looked back in Charlie Whittingham’s bio, and he said something about ‘nature.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that might work.’ They’re working on a test for it.”

As far as that goes, they do test for steroids. Just ask Ron Ellis, who will be leading Masochistic over for the Grade 1 Triple Bend Stakes two races before the Handicap, equipped with his usual black shadow roll, rear wraps, and a big bull’s-eye painted on his trainer’s back.

Masochistic’s disqualification from purse money after his second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last November put the spotlight on a drug-testing policy that essentially calls for zero tolerance for the presence of an allowed therapeutic medication. The amount of residual steroid present was insignificant, but its association with such a high-profile event triggered controversy and put a hold on Masochistic’s 2017 campaign until he satisfied further testing. The delay forced Ellis to miss a planned start, which means the seven-furlong Triple Bend will be 126 days since Masochistic’s last race.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge, but he does run well fresh,” Ellis said. “Ideally, I wanted to get that race in him in early January. After that, we had to deal with the rain. He had only one work the rest of the month because of the bad tracks.”

Ellis began training Masochistic in April 2015 and won the Triple Bend – then run in June – in their second start together. The feisty son of Sought After is now 7, with just 14 starts to his name.

“He has settled some,” Ellis said. “But he can still get a little rank sometimes. Let’s say he’s mellowed quite a bit, but not all the way, like some old war veterans who hear a backfire.

“One thing is certain,” Ellis added. “He will test clean.”

Masochistic will not be doing anything he hasn’t done before. The same cannot be said of Dortmund, the towering 5-year-old who will be making his turf debut in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, sandwiched between the Triple Bend and the Handicap.

Dortmund went winless during a checkered 2016 campaign compromised by chronic hoof trouble and California Chrome. Owner Kaleem Shah transferred Dortmund and several others from Bob Baffert to Art Sherman in hopes of tapping some of that Chromie magic.

“Art thought the turf would be a good place to get started,” Shah said by text while en route Thursday back to California from a visit with family in his native India. “Hopefully, Dortmund adapts to the grass and comes out running.”

Shah also will be deeply involved in the Grade 2 San Felipe earlier on the card with his 3-year-old colt Iliad, now trained by Doug O’Neill. After a win in the San Vicente at the meet, the son of Ghostzapper seems like a young horse on the rise. But it is Dortmund, the winner of the 2015 Santa Anita Derby, who is the established star.

Dortmund is by Big Brown, who won his only start on turf. Shah deferred to pedigree experts on whether or not this will help the big chestnut handle such experienced turf milers as Ring Weekend, Bolo, and defending champ What a View in the Kilroe. Like Masochistic, Dortmund will be making his first start since the Breeders’ Cup.

“I just want him to get his campaign started and have a great rest of the year,” Shah said.