01/08/2015 2:51PM

Hovdey: Miller has strength in numbers for Saturday's card


In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the Kentucky Derby is upon us. There is a Kentucky Derby future book well under way. Hopeful 3-year-olds from the foal crop of 2012 are busy racking up eligibility points for the 141st running on May 2. Milliners hired by Yum! Brands, the Derby’s corporate sponsor, already are mulling over improvements to last year’s hat designs made from Pizza Hut boxes.

Santa Anita Park jumps in with both feet on Saturday with the Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on the main track. At $100,000, it is minimally funded for a Grade 3 event, but right there in the conditions for the race – in capital letters no less – is the magical incantation that the winner will receive $60,000 “PLUS 10 KENTUCKY DERBY POINTS.”

With that kind of incentive, I’m sure there would be people running their horses for free.

A race named for Sham is a great way to kick things off, Derby-wise, seeing as Sham is the poster boy for abject frustration in America’s most famous horse race. In the winter of 1973, Sham (by Pretense) survived a series of tough races out West against the brilliant Linda’s Chief and future Hall of Famer Ancient Title, only to run into that big red wall named Secretariat at Churchill Downs. Sham was the second-best 3-year-old in the land that spring, but it got him nothing but heartache and early retirement.

There will be eight hands on deck for the Sham, none of them familiar beyond their immediate circles except for the lone maiden in the race, Calculator, who finished second twice to Eclipse Award finalist American Pharoah last year. Calculator is one of three being sent out by trainer Peter Miller.

“He’s had nothing but bad luck,” said an apologetic Miller, who is not prone to run non-winners in graded stakes. “He had a foot keep him out of the Breeders’ Cup and then got sick before the Los Alamitos Futurity, but now he’s going better then ever.”

To that end, Miller primed Calculator with a six-furlong work last Sunday that was the best of 32 on the tab. The clocking of 1:11.60 was not unusual for the talented colt, but the locale was. Instead of taking place at Miller’s base at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, the work was at Santa Anita because of ... red tape.

With his physical hiccups transparently publicized, Calculator was on the official vet’s list. To be removed from the vet’s list and become eligible to race, a horse must work to the satisfaction of an official veterinarian. A trainer can do this just about any day of the week at Santa Anita, but at San Luis Rey Downs the official vet shows up only a couple of times a month, like a country priest visiting a remote village.

“It was no big deal to put him and his workmate Rock Shandy on a van that morning,” Miller said. “Rock Shandy broke off ahead of him to give him a target and they finished together. It was a good work, they got back on the van, and were back home before they knew it.”

Miller has a big day in store on Saturday, with a whole herd shipping up from San Luis Rey. This is only fitting, since his stable is becoming one of the happening places on the Southern California scene. Last weekend he scored in the San Gabriel with the emergent turf star Finnegans Wake. In the Sham, besides Calculator, Miller will send out Rock Shandy and St. Joe Bay, both stakes-placed. An hour later Miller will be in action in the $200,000 San Pasqual with Big Cazanova, winner of the Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar, and Appealing Tale, third in the recent Midnight Lute.

Big Cazanova is a puzzlement. He arrived on these shores from Peru as a 5-year-old maiden, then promptly reeled off three wins in his first six starts for the Miller barn. After that they went hunting for bear in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont and then Las Vegas Marathon on the first Breeders’ Cup program at Santa Anita. Both ended badly.

“We got a very weird trip in the Gold Cup,” Miller said, having long ago drawn a line through the race. “In the Marathon, he led through the mile in a time almost as fast as Goldencents won the Dirt Mile later that same day, which is not exactly what you want to do when you’ve got another three-quarters of a mile to run.”

Elvis Trujillo, who is unbeaten in two tries aboard Big Cazanova, will be aboard again in the San Pasqual, a 1 1/16-mile event that has lured major stakes winners Hoppertunity and Majestic Harbor. It will be Calculator, however, who could emerge from the day with all the buzz since, after all, the Kentucky Derby is upon us.

“He’s a bigger, stronger colt than he was last summer,” Miller noted. “It was tough to miss those late-season races, but it might turn out to be a blessing, since he’s a fresh horse coming into this year.

“I think I know what kind of colt he can be,” Miller added. “But I’d really prefer not going into the Kentucky Derby still a maiden.”

That’s a good line from all angles. The last maiden to win the Kentucky Derby was Sir Barton in 1919. Certainly Miller and owner Richard Pell could have found a maiden race somewhere that Calculator could have dusted off. But the ability of a horse exists independently from the races in which he is placed, and Calculator has done nothing to be considered less than one of the top Derby prospects in the West. Now all he needs to do is win.