02/19/2015 3:20PM

Hovdey: Main Sequence gets back in the picture

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Barbara D. Livingston
Main Sequence is using the Mac Diarmida to prepare for the Dubai Sheema Classic on March 28.

Those 53 noble souls – the few, the proud – who voted for Main Sequence for 2014 Horse of the Year will be able to climb back onto their high horse Saturday when their chestnut hero returns to action in the $200,000 Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

California Chrome outpolled Main Sequence by 90 votes in the 2014 paper chase, but those 53 holdouts are anxious to join the “I told you so” bandwagon already fueled by Shared Belief in the debate over the best American horse in training. Chromies, Beliefers, Mainliners ... good grief. Sounds like a Roller Derby league.

The Main Sequence lobby made a good case. Four starts in 2014, his first year of U.S. competition. Four wins, all of them in Grade 1 events, climaxed by a victory over international star Flintshire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. It was hard to argue against perfection, although it ended up harder to argue against a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who captured hearts, minds, and a whole lot of television time.

The good news is that both Main Sequence and California Chrome are still in training, along with five of the other runners crowned divisional champions of the 2014 flat season. The only retired Eclipse Award winners were the older mares Close Hatches and Dayatthespa, who owed their people nothing after each had pounded the boards for multiple campaigns.

Of course, it is no big deal that 2-year-olds American Pharoah and Take Charge Brandi have come back for more. That’s their job. Main Sequence and male sprint champ Work All Week are geldings, so they really have nothing better to do. But California Chrome certainly could have headed to the shed, and likewise the 3-year-old filly champion Untapable and female sprint champion Judy the Beauty.

“Judy has been at Keeneland, where she’s always done so well,” said Wesley Ward, Judy the Beauty’s trainer and part owner. “The weather has kept her from doing a whole lot lately, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Down here in Florida, where we’re blessed with such beautiful weather, we tend to lean on them a little too much because you never miss any training days.”

Ward has put a light circle around the Madison Stakes at Keeneland on April 4, which Judy the Beauty won in 2014, for her possible return. In the meantime, the game is already better for the presence of the other reigning champs. Take Charge Brandi was first out of the box with a carefully measured win in the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn on Jan. 31. A week later, California Chrome finished a solid but humbling second to Shared Belief in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. Now it is time for Main Sequence, a champion in two categories, to strut his considerable stuff.

Main Sequence captured the vote in both the older-male and turf-male categories of 2014 while running only on grass. This upset so many people that the older-male and older-female categories were changed to “Older Male Dirt” and “Older Female Dirt” beginning this year, solving a problem that should not have been one in the first place.

Graham Motion reacted with amusement that his stable star should have sparked such a significant shift in voting guidelines. He was reminded of the NCAA ruling to outlaw the dunk in response to Lew Alcindor’s dominance of the mid-1960s at UCLA. Not really.

“He’s a game-changer,” Motion said. “I think it’s funny, but at least this time I was on the right end of it. When I won the King’s Bishop, it was the last year it was a Grade 2. That’s always frustrated me.”

Motion is using the Mac Diarmida as a prep for the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic, to be run March 28. The last time Motion was there, he won the $10 million Dubai World Cup in 2013 with Animal Kingdom, which was impressive enough, but this time, he might be biting off a whole lot more to chew. Did he take a look at the field that assembled for the 2014 Sheema?

“I think I’d be afraid to,” Motion said. “Was it that bad?”

Only if you had to run in it. Gentildonna, a two-time Japan Cup winner and Japanese Horse of the Year, beat a group that included the French superstar Cirrus des Aigles, Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Magician, and Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden.

“My feeling is that this year the race might be a little more competitive because some of the horses who would have run in the World Cup on the Tapeta surface would now be running on the grass,” Motion said, citing Meydan’s switch from the synthetic surface to dirt.

“We realize it’s going to be very competitive,” the trainer said. “But I guess having won the big race at the Breeders’ Cup, it makes me think we’re justified in taking a shot.”

First things first. Main Sequence will be facing his stubborn shadow Twilight Eclipse in the Mac Diarmida over 11 furlongs. In their four 2014 encounters, all won by Main Sequence, they were separated by a total of barely three lengths.

“I also keep reminding myself that Animal Kingdom got beat in his prep race at Gulfstream for Dubai,” Motion said. “Otherwise, it’s very exciting to have him back.”