07/14/2016 11:50AM

Hovdey: Prize Exhibit goes for blue ribbon in Yellow Ribbon


A case can be made for taking a day off after the ordeal of Del Mar’s opening program. Those who survive Fat Tuesday get a whole year to recover. The Oklahoma Land Rush was one and done.

But at Del Mar, the show goes on. Saturday will come up quickly, even with its 2 p.m. Pacific post time, and for true racing fans, that is when the real Del Mar meet begins.

Unlike opening day, beautiful men and women will be appreciated for their handicapping skills instead of their superficial good looks. There is room to breathe, and even turn around, in the Turf Club. And there is no jeopardy of being injured by someone wearing a hat depicting the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Saturday’s program also will feature the first noticeable tweak to the stakes schedule under the leadership of racing secretary David Jerkens, who came to the job in 2014. That summer, Jerkens was faced with a brand-new turf course not quite ready for prime time. Last year, he was similarly presented with the maiden voyage of a new dirt main track replacing the degraded Polytrack. When asked what major renovation he dealt with this time around, Jerkens paused to think.

“They painted the racing office,” he replied.

Yes, they did, going from some dull industrial shade to a calm, creamy white that certainly will guarantee full fields and happy horsemen all summer long.

Del Mar long ago dropped any pretense of working with or around Arlington Park’s Beverly D. Stakes for the female grass bunch. This year, to give the division a sensible, two-step series, the schedule shifted the 1 1/16-mile Yellow Ribbon Handicap from the rump of the meet to the first Saturday and pushed the 1 1/8-mile John C. Mabee Stakes to the final Sunday of the season, Sept. 4.

Both are worth $200,000, which is about all you get for a Grade 2 race in California these days, and pretty much guarantees Jerkens and his crew will need to hustle if they are to avoid demotion to Grade 3.

Still, no matter how hard they try, the trend does not seem to favor Del Mar. During the 39-day meet, there will be 21 graded races, six of which are Grade 1, led by the Del Mar Futurity, which has produced the last three winners of the Kentucky Derby.

In contrast, during the 40-day Saratoga meet that begins next week, there will be 35 graded races, 16 of them rated Grade 1 by the American Graded Stakes Committee, a wholly owned function of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Conclusions may now be drawn.

The Mabee sailed along as a Grade 1 race for 26 years from 1984 to 2009. As for the Yellow Ribbon, it was the premier distance grass race in California for fillies and mares for 33 seasons while run at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree Racing Association meet.

When the group was booted from Santa Anita, the race name was retained by Oak Tree, along with some office furniture and stationery, and was offered to Del Mar in place of the Palomar Handicap. Since no one could recall why it was named the Palomar Handicap in the first place, the change was a no-brainer. It helped that Oak Tree funded most of the purse.

Oak Tree does business in Northern California now and left the Yellow Ribbon behind for Del Mar to enjoy, and fund, as its own. On Saturday, the race will feature the graded stakes winners Queen of The Sand, Finest City, Her Emmynency, Nancy From Nairobi, and Keri Belle, plus the 1-2 finishers from the 2015 Yellow Ribbon, She’s Not Here and Prize Exhibit.

There’s little doubt that Prize Exhibit likes Del Mar. She won the 2015 San Clemente over the course, finished third in the Del Mar Oaks, and was not embarrassed last fall against her elders in the Matriarch. She was off to the races this year with a win in the Monrovia at Santa Anita, but then her running style caught up with her, and she has had little joy since.

“That’s the price you pay with a stretch runner like her in big fields on the grass,” said trainer Jim Cassidy at his Del Mar barn this week.

In her last five turf starts, Prize Exhibit has been part of fields numbering 13, 14, 11, 11, and 14. Most recently, she was fifth behind the record-setting Celestine in the Just a Game at Belmont Park, beaten less than two lengths for second.

“And she would have been second with any luck at all,” Cassidy insisted.

Two stalls down, Prize Exhibit was eavesdropping in a shadowy corner, but her long, white blaze gave her away. The English-bred daughter of Showcasing has been knocking heads with some of the best in the division not named Tepin over the past year. If she has taken it to heart, it did not show in the glow of her dark brown coat. Cassidy leaked an admiring smile, then quickly recovered his game face.

“She’s at her best at a mile,” he said, “so we’ll see if she can get the mile and a sixteenth. Even then, she’ll need luck.”

Then again, there’s only nine in the field. Prize Exhibit might feel like she’s all alone out there.