11/24/2016 12:36PM

Hovdey: Hendricks tries to be Zen about Om's BC loss

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Emily Shields
Om (12), gets to the wire just a little too late, missing by a nose to Obviously in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

It has been 20 years since Cigar ran his last race, in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine, while more than 76 years have passed since Seabiscuit took his final bow with a victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Yet their names live on, in more ways than one, and on Saturday their memories will be summoned once again in significant bicoastal races at Del Mar and Aqueduct.

Cigar was the notoriously schizophrenic son of Palace Music who began life as a failed turf horse before a dramatic rebranding turned him into the preeminent main-track competitor of the decade. He retired just $185 shy of an even $10 million in earnings, pocket change he could have stumbled into with minimally more effort in any one of the 10 grass races he lost in 11 tries.

On dirt, Cigar was nearly unbeatable. Apart from his first two maiden races, he won 17 of 20 starts on the main track, all of those against older opposition from whatever cream there was of several crops. His 16 straight wins from the autumn of 1994 to the summer of 1996 were the talk of the racing world. Wherever Cigar ran was the place to be.

Cigar was voted Horse of the Year in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, the New York Racing Association renamed its NYRA Mile the Cigar Mile, which made perfect sense since the 1994 NYRA Mile marked Cigar’s first stakes win. For Saturday, the $500,000 Cigar Mile purse has lured a field that includes Anchor Down, Ocean Knight, Divining Rod, Connect, and War Story.

Like Cigar, Seabiscuit had a distinctly bifurcated career. By the time he was purchased by Charles S. Howard in August 1936, the horse had been asked to run a ridiculous 47 times at ages 2 and 3 by a succession of Wheatley Stable trainers, including the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

Once in the hands of Tom Smith, Seabiscuit was treated like a good horse, which is what he became. He won 24 of 42 starts for Howard, carrying 130 pounds or more a dozen times, and was Horse of the Year in 1938. How popular was Seabiscuit? Read the book. See the movie.

When Del Mar inherited Hollywood Park’s fall stakes commitments, the former Citation Handicap became the Seabiscuit. Switching names left West Coast racing without a proper homage to Citation, but Seabiscuit’s California roots were deep, and in his lone appearance at Del Mar he won a controversial match race against South American ace Ligaroti that set the sporting press on its ear.

The cast lining up for Saturday’s running of the $200,000 Seabiscuit, at 8 1/2 furlongs on the grass, includes Ring Weekend, What a View, Om, and Vyjack, each coming out of a Breeders’ Cup appearance.

Om, the winner of the 2015 Del Mar Derby, might be the freshest among them. After making 10 starts over an 11-month stretch, the flashy son of Munnings was given a break last spring by trainer Dan Hendricks, then came back better than ever. He was second in the Del Mar Mile, second in the City of Hope Mile, and came one step away from winning the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 5.

It was a step he lost at the start, which cost Om and Gary Stevens striking position on the twisting downhill Santa Anita course. They found themselves last early, traveling well but going nowhere. Up in the stands, the pragmatic Hendricks had all but conceded the match.

“Basically, it was game over until he crossed the dirt,” Hendricks said this week from his Santa Anita stable. “Then it turned into another race.”

Did it ever. Stevens still had a ton of horse, and miraculously they began to find creases inside, between, and around the dozen opponents separating Om from the front-running Obviously. In the final 50 yards, they passed the classy Pure Sensation like he was tied to a post and were gobbling up Obviously when the wire arrived – too soon. The difference was a nose, and $380,000 in prize money.

Hendricks could be forgiven if he had pounded his head over the tough loss. After three decades as a trainer, he has never been so close to a Breeders’ Cup score. But 12 years in a wheelchair after a dirt-bike accident cultivate a certain equanimity when it comes to such mundane matters as a lost horse race. Hendricks preferred to look at the Cup result as at least half fulfilling.

“Luckily, we got through with a clean trip because he could have gotten blocked pretty easily considering as big a field as it was,” Hendricks said. “After the fact, we were just glad we were second and had a lot of fun with it. We can’t complain.”

Best of all, Om is raring to go again.

“He actually came out of his race fresher and stronger, not losing any weight, than he has a lot of his other races,” Hendricks said. “Only running three-sixteenths of a mile might have helped.”

Om, owned by Kulbhushan and Shashi Sareen, will race next year at age 5, according to Hendricks.

“We never even thought about stopping,” Hendricks said. “He’s healthy, happy, and sound. I can’t ask more for a horse than that. He should have a real big year.”

And it could start on Saturday.