12/15/2011 1:15PM

Hovdey: Majestic City out to answer CashCall

Barbara D. Livingston
Majestic City's future may well be in racing on grass.

Majestic City is one of those creatures whose picture ends up in a kid’s magazine labeled “horse,” no embellishment required. With his caramel coat, single stockings fore and aft, and a handsome mug paved brow to nose by a wide, forthright blaze he is, by all accepted standards, a pretty boy.

But pretty is as pretty does in the racing business. As of Saturday morning, when he awakens in the Peter Miller barn at Hollywood Park, Majestic City will be only one of the baker’s dozen of 2-year-olds entered for the nation’s last big payday of 2011 in the $750,000 CashCall Futurity, and to win the lion’s share he will need to run the best race of his young life.

Of course, that was said in his last start, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs, and he didn’t. In fact, Majestic City had so much trouble with the squishy course in Louisville that his rider, Garrett Gomez, pretty much wrapped up and coasted home after the colt bobbled gamely on the front end through three-quarters of a mile.

Since it was Majestic City’s first poor outing in six tries, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Stir in the fact that Miller was not 100-percent happy with the way his colt was acting at Churchill Downs leading up to the race – both his appetite and his feet were at issue – and there you go. Horses, it turns out, are only human.

“He’s got a ton of ability and a lot of heart,” Miller said Thursday morning at Hollywood. “The way he looks, John Wayne should be riding him. I never go looking for excuses, so as far as I’m concerned he just got beat at the Breeders’ Cup and that’s it. He will have no excuses for the Futurity.”

Success in the CashCall – known more readily as the Hollywood Futurity – tends to steer owners and trainers in the direction of Churchill Downs. Derby winners Ferdinand, Alysheba, Thunder Gulch, and Giacomo were hardly discouraged when beaten at Hollywood.

Still, in 30 runnings of the Futurity, there has been only one winner to go on to take the Kentucky Derby. That was the 1997 hero, Real Quiet. Draw what conclusions from that you will, but a sampling of other winners would make for a pretty good fantasy stable. They include Point Given, A.P. Indy, Snow Chief, Stephen’s Oddysey, and Lookin At Lucky, who among them won six classics. That is, if the Preakness and the Belmont are still classics.

Miller has a chance to become the only trainer other than Bob Baffert to win the Futurity back to back. This time last year a rainstorm of Biblical proportions hit Los Angeles just in time to greet Miller and the blue-collar gelding Comma to the Top, who survived a considerable fuss fixing a horseshoe in the paddock then went out and splashed to a 1 3/4-length victory, icing his status as the West’s top 2-year-old of 2010.

To put Miller’s name in the books, Majestic City won’t need to run a whole lot better than he did in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland or in the Del Mar Futurity just before that to have something to say in the CashCall. He finished an eventful second in both races.

At Keeneland, going a mile and one-sixteenth, Majestic City struck for home on the final turn, opening a clear gap on the field, but could not hold off the closing punch of longshot Dullahan and lost by three-quarters of a length. At Del Mar it was a far different scenario at seven furlongs, in which Majestic City finished furiously on the outside in a three-pack that included Drill and Creative Cause. Drill beat Majestic City by a short neck, but Creative Cause got squeezed in the deal and Majestic City was disqualified to third.

“When we bought him I had a pretty good idea he was a good horse,” Miller said. “Then when he breezed his first half-mile for me in 45 and change, and David Flores thought he went in 48, it was pretty clear he had a lot of talent.”

Majestic City’s ultimate fit in the racing spectrum is another matter. The stark record shows his victories at 4 1/2, 5 1/2, and six furlongs (that last one in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship in July). Then at seven and 8 1/2 furlongs he was beaten, though narrowly, before that throw-out on the Churchill turf.

“We certainly still have questions about how far he wants to run,” Miller conceded, “although I think in the Breeders’ Futurity he showed he could get the mile and a sixteenth.”

Miller will do some tinkering for the Futurity, taking the black blinkers off Majestic City and adding Ramon Dominguez. The opposition is coming in from all over the map, but those contenders with stakes experience are led by Drill, Liaison, Brother Francis, Handsome Mike, Rousing Sermon, and Basmati.

To this point, Miller has been treating Majestic City as if his future is on the grass as a 3-year-old. Except for a few gallops at Churchill Downs before the Breeders’ Cup, he has trained and raced only on turf and synthetics. This leaning could be a function of his sire, City Zip, who has ended up cranking out any number of sharp grass horses – Get Serious, Workin for Hops, and Unzip Me among them.

“We’ll definitely try the dirt over at Santa Anita this winter,” Miller said. “And he’s run on just about anything. But I really think he’s going to like firm turf.”

Welcome to the new reality of synthetic-track racing, in which a horseman with one of the top California 2-year-olds will pay homage to the dreams of running in the coveted dirt races offered 3-year-olds, but in the back of his mind be plotting a course that takes him through the middle-distance grass races spread over the season’s calendar. If there were an American version of a Guineas, Miller and Majestic City would be all over it. As it is, the CashCall could rightfully be an end in itself.