03/15/2012 2:48PM

Hovdey: Longshots look for luck of the Irish

Shigeki Kikkawa
Kayce Ace will be looking to spring an upset in the Santa Margarita Invitational.

A sideways glance at the stakes action out West on Saturday might lead an inveterate hunch player to shoot for an all-Irish parlay, seeing as St. Patrick’s Day is upon us.

It will take some heavy lifting, though, and perhaps intervention from saints of a higher order than that old snake charmer Patrick, to put this one across. Dublin’s Eoin Harty, whose Kentucky Derby luck ran out with the injury of contender Out of Bounds last week, has entered Kayce Ace in Santa Anita’s $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational, the same Kayce Ace was beaten 10 lengths by Ellafitz in the Paseana Handicap in January and 15 lengths by Ellafitz in the Santa Maria last month.

In some quarters, this would pass for conclusive evidence of their relative abilities, at least at this point in time. However, the fact that Ellafitz leads the field for the Santa Margarita in search of her fourth straight stakes win should not necessarily discourage longshots like Kayce Ace from giving her a whirl, since stranger things have happened in horse racing and absolutely will again.

Like it did in the 1981 Santa Margarita when the 14-1 Cal-bred Princess Karenda beat champion Glorious Song by a nose and Ack’s Secret, The Very One, and Kilijaro by a lot more.

Or in 1976 when the 10-1 Fascinating Girl, trained by Irish Tommy Doyle, turned an all-star Santa Margarita field on its head, defeating Summertime Promise and Charger’s Star in a three-horse photo and leaving in their wake the two-time reigning champ Tizna along with the major stakes winners Miss Tokyo, Gay Style, and Dulcia.

Or in 1961, when Ethel Jacobs’s 23-1 Sister Antoine got the best of Paris Pike, Geechee Lou, Darling June, and a dozen others in an otherwise unremarkable Santa Margarita, except for the fact that it was the fourth time Sister Antoine had raced in 11 days. Could Hirsch Jacobs train ’em or what?

Then again, maybe it’s best not to fight fate this time around. After all, Ella Fitz, a daughter of the Dixieland Band mare Skat Girl, is named for Ella Fitzgerald, she of the finest female voice in the history of female voices. And if Fitzgerald ain’t Irish . . .

Saturday’s supporting feature comes already equipped with a St. Paddy’s Day theme. At 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill, the $10,000 Irish O’Brien is named for the scrappy little mare of the mid-1980s who won five races in a career of 21 starts for owners Susan and Barry Isaacs and trainer Hector Palma.

Unzip Me, at age 6 a California institution, tops the field for trainer Marty Jones in search of her 15th career win. There is a prediction of rain on the horizon, which could force the Irish O’Brien onto the main track and keep Unzip Me in the barn. Either way, rival trainer Sean McCarthy hopes to have an answer.

McCarthy, whose name seems to hang above every other pub in Ireland, has entered the 5-year-old mares Bench Glory and Sunburn. Like Unzip Me, they both carry the green and white colors of California’s Harris Farms, and they both have the recent form to be factors.

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” said McCarthy, whose Irish heritage goes back to great-grandparents from County Cork in the south and County Monaghan in the north. “Bench Glory runs well on that course, while Sunburn’s shortening up but might be at a little more of an advantage if they switch it over to the dirt.”

McCarthy, one of several trainers used by John Harris and his various partners, has made a number of pilgrimages to the Ould Sod. For some reason, his name opens doors.

“As soon as I land, they say ‘Welcome home!’ ” McCarthy said. “Once they’re aware of your heritage, you’re good to go.”

As for the horse behind the name of the race, Irish O’Brien had a deeply loyal following of fans, most of whom were able to send kids through school betting her coming down the Santa Anita hillside course. She ran on it nine times and won five, while second twice. Joe Steiner rode her in 16 races, including all five of Irish O’Brien’s wins.

“It’s funny how some horses take to the couse so well,” Steiner said. “It’s almost as if they get so comfortable with that setting it becomes what they love to do. She had a real relaxed attitude where she’d just sit back and make that one run. Once she got going, though, she was very determined. She was just a little-bitty thing with a heart of gold. And she’d always seem to just get up by a nose.”

Irish O’Brien raced for the last time in April 1985, in the Las Cienegas Handicap down the hill. She bowed a tendon that day, but went on to become the dam of the accomplished stakes winner Blaze O’Brien.

“The Isaacs were really into it whenever she ran, especially Susan,” Steiner added. “She’d be shaking, all nervous, and I’d tell her to just relax, we were going to go out there and have fun. Then she’d pin a four-leaf clover on my silks. For luck.”

Rosenberg will be missed

A belated but heartfelt farewell to racetrack regular Eddie Rosenberg, who was 53 when he passed away March 2. His friends gathered in the Turf Club at Santa Anita last weekend to swap Eddie stories, but at the end of the day the punch line was always that the fraternity had lost one of its kindest hearts.

Rosenberg – aka Eddie from Alhambra – was a self-described racetrack character who loved nothing more than to extoll the virtues of Nat King Cole and his beloved Minnesota Vikings. There was never an Eddie encounter that went by without a reminiscence over a great horse from the past, or of him recommending to this writer that I advocate for the welfare of some older claimer who’d gone off form and needed to be mercifully retired. Funny thing about that – Eddie seemed to care about everybody but himself.