09/06/2017 1:46PM

Hovdey: Risenhoover moves earth and sky for Del Mar win


It’s a roll of the dice naming a Thoroughbred after someone near and dear. If the horse is hopelessly slow, or runs in bottom-level claimers, that’s one thing. But bad things can happen, and sometimes do.

Then again, when the ending is happy, like it was in the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf on closing day at Del Mar, spirits soar. Terra’s Angel, the winner, is a daughter of Drosselmeyer named for Terra Bibb, the daughter of co-owner Terry Eoff. Bibb was 36 when she died last May after battling brain cancer, but not before Terra’s Angel won a maiden race at Lone Star Park.

Terra is also the mythological Roman goddess of the Earth. “Earth Angel” was a Top 40 hit in 1955, sung by the Crew Cuts and sung better by The Penguins.

Who knows what music was playing in the head of Sasha Risenhoover as she rode Terra’s Angel to a picture-perfect half-length victory over a hard-charging One Fast Broad at the end of the mile on firm ground? The 27-year-old jockey was winning her first Del Mar race on the filly who brought her to California.

Despite the representation of legendary agent Vince DeGregory, Risenhoover was sparsely used at the meet with just 15 rides, two of them aboard Terra’s Angel for trainer Dallas Keen. After teaming in the maiden win in Texas, Risenhoover and her filly were third, at 56-1, in the Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes before tackling the Monday event.

“Everything worked to plan,” Risenhoover said as she made her way past newfound autograph seekers after the race. “I was hoping the speed would go, and it did. That gave me a target to run at. She started to pull me on up in there, and when I called on her she gave it all to me. She just dug in and was not letting that horse by. Neither was I.”

Risenhoover is far from a lucky beginner. She made her bones on the Texas circuit, taking a co-championship of the Retama Park meet last year and this year finishing fourth at Sam Houston and third at Lone Star. Since the beginning of 2016, Risenhoover has won 198 races.

Southern California can be a shock to the system, though, and Risenhoover has been up against it. But few riders make their first mark by winning a hundred-grander at Del Mar.

“Coming here has been pretty much like starting over again,” Risenhoover said. “There have been down times and hard times. But I’m not a quitter. I’m a fighter. I’ve wanted to be here more than anything, and this filly has made a dream come true.”

Victories big and small

Closing day also featured an aesthetically pleasing version of the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, won by the Medaglia d’Oro colt Bolt d’Oro over Midnight Lute’s son Zatter. Both will be heard from.

Mick Ruis bought Bolt d’Oro for $630,000 and does the training with the aid of his daughter Shelbe. Last summer, Shelbe was the trainer of record when the Ruis clan took the Del Mar Debutante with Union Strike.

“I guess we saved Del Mar a paint job,” Shelbe said with a grin, nodding toward the iron jockeys that decorate the walking ring wearing the colors of the Futurity, Debutante, and Pacific Classic winners.

The summer had something for everyone – except Arrogate fans – with handle up, field size up, and attendance respectably flat. The real success, however, came in more flesh-and-blood terms.

After 17 racehorses died in one way or another last summer, Del Mar management was desperate to reverse the horrific trend. The loss of “only” six this summer – five in training or racing and one to post-exercise cardiac arrest – was a victory of mixed proportions, but still a victory. Joe Harper, Del Mar president, was asked if it had to get that bad before it got better.

“I think that’s probably typical of life,” Harper said. “This industry is always fairly insulated from the outside world, but I think the word is out. All you have to do is pick up the paper. So we have to be aware, and do everything we can to keep these horses as safe as possible.”

To that end, management threw everything it could at the problem. The horse population was reduced. The workers-only window immediately following renovation breaks was continued. Pre-race inspections were given intensified priority. Entries with red-flag records were questioned. The main track was modified and maintained by Dennis Moore, track superintendent at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, and San Luis Rey Downs.

“I also must thank the horsemen for understanding that this problem is not going to go away unless we have their cooperation,” Harper added. “That was part of our success story this year.”

Of course, it is impossible to know what worked, or why. The people running a racetrack do not have the luxury of addressing equine mortality in a cool, scientific manner, eliminating one variable at a time until the problem is softened or solved. There also lingers the awful reality that horses suffer fatal injuries for inexplicable reasons, at least to the naked eye.

Del Mar’s upper management team walked around every day praying for the best but braced for bad news, aware they could do only so much to prevent it. Hopefully, the results of the season meant that those 17 did not die in vain, and that the six lost at this meet will save others at the next.