02/23/2012 1:40PM

Hovdey: Royal Delta, Amazombie continue early-season parade of 2011 champions

Barbara D. Livingston
Last year's champion 3-year-old filly will make her 4-year-old debut in Saturday's Sabin at Gulfsteam Park.

There was reason to celebrate the fact that no fewer than eight of the 10 Eclipse Award champions from 2011, including Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, would still be in training in 2012 for the pleasure of American audiences. How has that worked out so far?

Musical Romance, the durable female sprint champ, was first to break cover on Jan. 28 in the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream Park. She finished fourth while never showing much enthusiasm for the whole idea.

The following day, 2-year-old champion Hansen popped the cork on his Kentucky Derby campaign in the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes, also at Gulfstream Park. After a stutter step at the start, the white horse ran a decent enough race to be second to Algorithms, which of course immediately emptied Hansen’s Derby bandwagon.

On Feb. 18, after nearly eight months out of sight – although hardly out of mind – 2011 Derby winner and 3-year-old male champion Animal Kingdom returned with authority to win an allowance race on the Gulfstream grass. The purse was only $60,000, but that was hardly the point. He will be running next for the winner’s share of $10 million in the Dubai World Cup.

Havre de Grace, also crowned champion older female, is intended to return on March 17 in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The 2-year-old filly champ, My Miss Aurelia, has been given time to get over a sore shin and should be back in action this spring, as will older male champ Acclamation, who is being pointed for a return to competition on the grass at Hollywood Park.

On Saturday, the reigning 3-year-old female champion, Royal Delta, will make her first start as a 4-year-old in the Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream Park, at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Other than train for Bill Mott, all she did in the off season was sell for $8.5 million to Benjamin Leon. It’s safe to say a $100,000 race like the Sabin will hardly make or break what should be an eventful season for Royal Delta (anyone for a showdown with Havre de Grace?). But the brilliant Awesome Maria, an Eclipse Award finalist, is entered against the champ on Saturday, so attention must be paid.

The stakes are considerably higher on Saturday for the reigning male sprint champion Amazombie, who makes his 2012 debut at Santa Anita in the $200,000 San Carlos at seven furlongs. The nation’s best sprinters have only a limited number of high-profile opportunities to make a good impression before they are thrown together for all the marbles in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at the end of the year, so they must be on their game every time they appear.

Force Freeze, beaten just a neck by Amazombie in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last November at Churchill Downs, already has planted his flag in 2012 with his 3 3/4-length win in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship last weekend. He got the seven furlongs in just a wink shy of the track mark, inspiring trainer Peter Walder to declare that his primary goal of the season is to erase the taste of last year’s Breeders’ Cup loss. Game on.

What Force Freeze is doing can be of no concern right now to the Amazombie people. They will have their hands full with a San Carlos field that includes The Factor and Rothko, the one-two finishers in Santa Anita’s opening-day Malibu Stakes, as well as a dangerous supporting cast made up of Canonize, Mensa Heat, and Sway Away. This is not a race for the faint hearted.

When The Factor was last seen in public on Dec. 26, he shaded 1:20 for the San Carlos distance. With him in the mix on Saturday, it’s safe to say that Flying Paster’s 31-year-old stakes record of 1:20.20 could fall, although the winner will be remembered more for joining the company of past San Carlos heroes Porterhouse, Hillsdale, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, Phone Trick and Kona Gold, as well as Northern Afleet, sire of Amazombie.

“I look for him to be even better than he was last year,” said Mike Smith, Amazombie’s rider. “He’s doing that well, or at least that’s what Alex Bisono tells me.”

Bisono, a fellow jock, is trainer Bill Spawr’s go-to guy when Amazombie works, which is usually before dawn. If another horse has been working better lately than the champ, he’s doing it around midnight.

“The only bad work he’s got lately is when I worked him,” Smith said with a laugh. “It was at five o’clock, and I am not used to five o’clock. I slowed him down way too much. But it was dark. I felt like I was flying.”

In addition to having ridden Horses of the Year Holy Bull, Azeri, and Zenyatta, Hall of Famer Smith has ridden a herd of fine sprinters in his day, including Salt Lake, Exotic Wood, Birdonthewire, and champion Cherokee Run. At 46, Smith knows they won’t come around with the regularity they once did, which is why he is determined to help make Amazombie last as long as possible.

“Before they gelded him he was very aggressive,” Smith said. “He’d get very hot and bothered, and he wanted to go to the lead every time. Now he’s so laid back and cool. He’s learned what I call the Zenyatta Way – to run that great quarter of a mile. They’re happier and stay so much sounder that way.”

Smith and Amazombie will be faced with a Santa Anita main track that has not been particularly kind to closers this season, a setting that plays to The Factor’s free-wheeling style.

“Can’t do much about that,” Smith said. “But with Amazombie I’m not worried. Just give him a good trip and you’ll see my horse run extremely well.”