10/26/2011 12:28PM

Hovdey: Mile conspicuous by its absence at Cal Cup

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The roll call for Saturday’s California Cup races at Santa Anita Park will come up a few names short.

First off, the co-founding Oak Tree Racing Association is no longer a co-sponsor, in league with the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. This is not a surprise, since Oak Tree does not currently exist as a racing association with a racing meet after being unceremoniously ushered to the sidelines earlier this year, while Santa Anita itself now operates the dates occupied by Cal Cup.

The Cal Cup program of events still leads with the $175,000 California Cup Classic, sponsored by City National Bank (which received $400 million in federal bailout funds), and includes the popular Cal Cup Sprint. The $100,000 Sprint has a new sponsor, AM830 radio (KLAA), whose line-up includes not only Angels baseball and the Mighty Ducks, but also racing show hosts Jay Privman and Mike Willman of “Thoroughbred LA” and Roger Stein of “The Roger Stein Show,” infomercial superstar Kevin Trudeau, and Rex Hudler, host of “Rex Hudler’s Wonder Dog Hour.” Welcome to the pack.

You don’t need to scratch hard to find rich history in the Cal Cup. For starters, the nine-furlong Classic has been won by no less than Best Pal, Lava Man, Sky Jack, and Budroyale, all of them good enough to handle the best older horses California had to offer in prime-time open events.

The six-furlong Sprint, also on the main track, has been won at one time or another by Dubai Golden Shaheen hero Big Jag, Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Dancing in Silks, and major stakes winners Answer Do, Love That Red, Softshoe Sure Shot, Ceeband, Areyoutalkintome, and Letthebighossroll.

The Distaff and the Matron, splitting older fillies and mares between a turf sprint and 1 1/16 miles on the main, have basked over the years in the glow of Acorn winner Cat’s Cradle, Apple Blossom winner Dream of Summer, Starlet winner Romance Is Diane, La Canada winner Belle’s Flag, Bayakoa winner Feverish, El Encino winner Klassy Kim, and Palomar winner Yearly Tour.

As for the Cal Cup Mile, a thoroughly entertaining lap on the grass, its winners of late have included those high-flying paternal brothers in blood, The Usual Q.T. and Unusual Suspect, as well as the blue-collar role models and two-time winners Native Desert (74 starts, 21 wins, $1.8 million in earnings), Blaze O’Brien (50 starts, 26 times first or second, a graded stakes winner at 8), and Megan’s Interco, who accomplished the unprecedented when he added a victory in the 1996 Cal Cup Classic to his earlier wins in the 1993 and 1995 Cal Cup Miles.

Slumming in open company between Cal Cups, Megan’s Interco also won the 1994 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park in course record time. More often than not, that’s the kind of horse it took to win the Cal Cup Mile, which qualifies as pointing out the obvious. The subject is timely, though, since the Mile – along with the Matron – has been dropped from the Cal Cup program.

A case can be made that a mile race of any quality at this time of year – even one restricted to Cal-breds – would suffer in proximity to both the Oak Tree Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Mile. For example, The Usual Q.T. won the 2009 running but passed the Cal Cup in 2010 (contested at Hollywood Park) in order to compete in the BC Mile. There he finished third to Goldikova and Gio Ponti, when he just as easily could have stayed home and beat the dickens out of Bruce’s Dream and Colgan’s Chip.

The cancellation of the Cal Cup Mile comes on the 20th anniversary of its most exciting running, the 1991 version won by the 6-year-old Shirkee, an otherwise nondescript club fighter who was at one point early in his career claimed for $16,000.

Assistant trainer Paddy Gallagher vividly recalls the sight of Eddie Delahoussaye riding Shirkee to a narrow victory after a knockdown, drag-out stretch run. The winning margin was a head, but the reaction to the exciting finish was nothing compared to the cheers that rose from the stands when the trainer of Shirkee was wheeled into the winner’s circle.

In April 1991 Bill Shoemaker had been training horses barely a year when he rolled his Ford Bronco down a freeway embankment east of Santa Anita and was rendered a quadriplegic. After a lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, the riding legend came back to his stable in October, wheelchair bound, unable to feel an ankle or feed a carrot, but intent upon continuing his second career. Shirkee’s Cal Cup marked Shoemaker’s first appearance in a winner’s circle since the accident.

Gallagher, a widely respected former assistant to John Sullivan, had kept the Shoemaker barn going through the summer and fall of ‘91. Shirkee was hardly a star, but he was more than earning his keep for the Eclipse Stable of Doug Atkins, Neil Papiano, and Mary Rita DePietro.

“He was a nice, big horse who probably preferred 6 1/2 down the hill at Santa Anita to a mile,” Gallagher said. “Eddie gave him a super ride. He found himself on the lead sooner than I think he expected, but he waited – and waited, and waited – before he went to riding, and just did hold off the horse coming on at the end.”

As for the reaction to his boss and best friend, Gallagher was touched, but he was long past being impressed by the man.

“He’d already been back to the barn, which was miracle enough, so we were kind of getting used to him being around again,” Gallagher said. “The fans were great, and I know Shoe was touched. Just the sight of him was enough for me.”

Shoemaker trained for six more years before retiring. He died in October 2003. On Saturday, Gallagher will saddle defending champion Soul Candy in the California Cup Classic.