02/02/2017 2:20PM

Hovdey: It ain't Affirmed-Alydar, but it'll do


The Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta rivalry never happened. Beholder and Songbird delivered only one memorable dance. And that rematch between titans Arrogate and California Chrome fizzled in the Florida sun.

Time to go back to those old reliables – Hoppertunity and Hard Aces.

Okay, so the thought does not exactly stir the blood. Visions of Affirmed and Alydar do not immediately come to mind. But give them their due. Both horses have been banging their heads against brick walls for more than two solid seasons, and still they keep showing up in a race like the San Antonio Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita, ready to empty the tank.

As the first major event for older runners in the post-Pegasus World Cup world, the San Antonio is a curiosity. Do we pretend as if its $300,000 purse can be taken seriously alongside the $12 million of the Pegasus? Has the performance of Pegasus winner Arrogate rendered contests like the San Antonio meaningless without him? Will Arrogate’s Mike Smith, riding Mor Spirit in the San Antonio, be inspired by the possibility of a paltry $18,000 payday one week after he bagged 700 large in Florida?

Even the San Antonio itself could be Pegasus road kill if at some point The Stronach Group decides to take the big race to Santa Anita. Just as the historic Donn Handicap was replaced on the Gulfstream Park schedule by the Pegasus, it would be the San Antonio probably shoved aside at Santa Anita.

And that would be too bad because there are few West Coast races with histories as rich as the San Antonio’s. In 76 of its 78 runnings, it has been presented at nine furlongs on the main track, an admirable consistency on the part of past track managements. Seabiscuit, Round Table, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, and Best Pal all won the San Antonio, as did Head Play under 128 pounds, Gun Bow under 129, and Mark-Ye-Well carrying 130.

A clerical error by the racing department has turned this edition of the San Antonio into a 1 1/16-mile contest (“Who goofed?!” as the late Jim Healy used to say). So, instead of the usual step toward the Santa Anita Handicap, we have a February version of last month’s San Pasqual.

Hoppertunity, a 6-year-old by Any Given Saturday, is a classic middle-distance kind of horse who rolls with anything between eight and 10 furlongs, while Hard Aces, a 7-year-old by Hard Spun, clearly benefits from races that require more stamina.

The San Antonio will mark the eighth time in 19 months that the two tough campaigners have crossed swords in a major West Coast event. If no one noticed, don’t blame them. Stars like California Chrome, Beholder, and Melatonin usually hogged all the glory while Hoppertunity and Hard Aces battled for the lesser awards.

Their most exciting encounter was their first, in the 2015 Gold Cup at Santa Anita, where Hard Aces got first run on the rail and beat the closing Hoppertunity by a nose. Hoppertunity has finished in front of Hard Aces in five of their other six encounters, including the 2016 San Antonio, where they were first and fifth.

Apart, they’ve had good days. Hard Aces went from last year’s San Antonio to be second to Melatonin in the Santa Anita Handicap. Hoppertunity used the race to finish third to California Chrome in Dubai. Hard Aces won the lengthy Cougar II Handicap at Del Mar and parlayed that into a second in the Marathon Stakes during the Breeders’ Cup festival, while Bob Baffert sent Hoppertunity east to snag some low-hanging fruit in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The San Antonio will be Hoppertunity’s first start since finishing a modest fourth to Gun Runner in the Clark Handicap at Churchill on Nov. 25. Hard Aces was last seen in a similar effort Nov. 27, when third to Midnight Storm in the Native Diver at Del Mar.

Both are fully equipped stallions, which means they don’t really need the work at this point, but there is enough purse incentive out there to keep them in the game. (The globetrotting Hoppertunity earned $2.3 million in 2016.) Time calls the tune, though, and on Saturday, they will face a fresh batch of 4-year-old legs in the San Antonio from Mor Spirit, Dalmore, and Accelerate, who lives in the John Sadler barn with Hard Aces.

Sadler can be forgiven if he is looking to the future with Accelerate rather than Hard Aces. Hronis Racing owns them both, so that’s okay. Accelerate rose to great occasion in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last year, finishing third to Tamarkuz and just a neck behind second-place Gun Runner, in only the seventh start of his career. In his last start, Accelerate finished second to Midnight Storm in the San Pasqual.

“We don’t see a lot of wet tracks here like we did that day, so I think he was a little surprised when the gates opened that day,” Sadler said. “We saw in the Dirt Mile how much ability he has.”

Still, the old boy retains a special place in the trainer’s heart.

“Hard Aces is definitely one of my all-time favorites,” Sadler said. “He’s a very sound, rugged horse, but the stallion market isn’t that great for a horse like him. He made well over $400,000 last year, so starting Saturday, we’ll try to go on and do the same thing this year.”