11/29/2012 4:07PM

Hovdey: Native Diver saga proof that truth is stranger than fiction

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Benoit & Associates
Richard's Kid is one of the principal players in a season-long drama that continues Saturday in the Native Diver Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park.

It’s not a soap opera. Really it’s not. It has been a perfectly normal chain of events that, arranged in order, appear to be quite rational and seem to make absolute sense, although having the cast of “Dynasty” on call wouldn’t hurt.

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight:

First, last March, Santa Anita Park owner Frank Stronach hires racehorse owner and L.A. businessman Mark Verge, who does not need the job, to occupy the driver’s seat at Santa Anita and steer the track on a fresh course of vigorous promotion to untapped markets while enhancing customer service. There are five weeks left in the meet.

Now it’s mid-August and here is Richard’s Kid, a two-time winner of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar for Bob Baffert and still in good form at age 7, sold by his Middle Eastern owner to a group of West Coast players, the most high-profile player among them being Santa Anita Park CEO Mark Verge, whose good friend Doug O’Neill will be the new trainer of Richard’s Kid just as soon as O’Neill returns from a suspension based on incidents from two years earlier.

In the meantime, O’Neill’s assistant, Leandro Mora, is running the stable and is caught in an immediate switch when there is confusion over who will ride Richard’s Kid in the Pacific Classic: his former jock Rafael Bejarano or the go-to guy for the new ownership, Victor Espinoza. The stewards hear the complaint of Bejarano’s agent, but Espinoza still gets the mount.

Hang on, though. Just before that happened there is a Del Mar-sponsored cocktail party at which, according to highly entertained witnesses, Jill Baffert, Bob’s wife, takes vigorous exception to the manner in which Richard’s Kid left the Baffert stable and lets Mark Verge know how she feels. A video of their exchange does not exist – did no one have a fully charged iPhone? – but let’s just say it probably wasn’t anything you haven’t heard at a longshoremen’s bar on your average Saturday night.

A few days later, Game On Dude, who is trained by Bob Baffert, beats his former stablemate Richard’s Kid in the Pacific Classic but Dullahan beats them both, and whether or not the fact that Chantal Sutherland dropped one of Dude’s reins near the finish has anything to do with the outcome remains one of those cosmic questions Stephen Hawking can tackle when he grows weary of quantum physics. It has to be somebody’s fault, though. My best guess was blame Dullahan.

Anyway, since you can’t fire the manager, fire the shortstop. Sutherland is bounced from Game On Dude, and that made sense, because all she ever did with the horse was win the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Californian, the San Antonio, and finish a solid second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to a horse ridden by her former boyfriend, Mike Smith. After the now happily-married-to-someone-else Sutherland thought about it for a while she retires, which might make her the smartest card in the deck because, really, who needs that?

Game On Dude, who is by Awesome Again, is ridden in the subsequent Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita by Rafael Bejarano (tell me you didn’t see that coming) and cruises home first, setting him up as the consensus favorite to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita five weeks hence with the Horse of the Year title on the line.

A few people notice that Richard’s Kid, now ridden by Garrett Gomez, is a distant third in the Awesome Again, but his part owner Mark Verge has bigger fish to fry since the heat is on at his first full meet running the Santa Anita show for Frank Stronach, who by the way owned Awesome Again, the winner of the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic who was not voted Horse of the Year.

As it happens, Game On Dude loses the Breeders’ Cup Classic without much of a fight and therefore will not be voted Horse of the Year, either. His trainer blames his loss on the fact that Bejarano did not have his horse in the thick of the early running, which is his most effective style. Game On Dude finishes seventh, beaten 15 lengths in the Classic, while Richard’s Kid runs fifth under Gomez, eight lengths back of victorious Fort Larned, whose jockey, Brian Hernandez, had never ridden at Santa Anita before.

Anyway, since you can’t fire the manager, fire the left fielder. Bejarano is bounced from Game On Dude and will be replaced by Mike Smith when he runs on Saturday at Betfair Hollywood Park in the Native Diver Handicap – the same Mike Smith who, by his own admission, let Union Rags slip through on the inside to beat Smith and Paynter, who was trained by Baffert, in the Belmont Stakes last June.

But wait a minute. Before Bejarano is fired from Game On Dude, Mark Verge – remember him? – is cut loose as Santa Anita CEO only a few days after the Breeders’ Cup when Frank Stronach tells him his services are no longer required in an operational role, but that he is welcome to stay on as a promotional consultant.

Verge says no thanks, that among other things he and his partners would rather beat Game On Dude in the Native Diver Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park with Richard’s Kid, who will be ridden by – and I kid you not – Rafael Bejarano.

The distance is 1 1/8 miles.

The purse is $250,000.

The comedy…priceless.