03/03/2017 4:20PM

Hovdey: Royal F J happy back at his home sweet home

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There probably were alarm bells going off all around the horse-rescue universe last Oct. 6, when Royal F J was entered for an $8,000 claiming tag at Santa Anita after nine straight starts in which he was either overmatched or noncompetitive at a variety of levels.

After all, he was 9, he was making his 89th start in a career dating to August 2009, and he had never shown up for a price of less than $20,000 in his life. Red flags don’t come brighter.

For once, though, there was no need to worry. Trainer Jack Carava, the man who had been on the Royal F J ride from the beginning, stepped up with partners Chris Curtis and Howard and Janet Siegel to claim the old boy and bring him home. They had no ambitions beyond Royal F J’s well-being.

“If he wants to run, we’ll run him,” Carava told Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman at the time. “If he doesn’t, we’ll stop and give him to a little girl for a riding horse.”

Pity that little girl. Nearly five months later, Royal F J is still in the game, training first thing every morning, demanding his routine, and looking the part of a polished chestnut parade horse who refuses to act his age.

In fact, Royal F J celebrated his actual 10th birthday last Wednesday, and on Sunday, he will face the starter for his 94th race in the opener at Santa Anita, a $12,500 claimer at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track.

“He’s a character,” said Carava. “A cool dude and fun to have around the barn. Other than the time I didn’t have him last year, I think the most time I’ve ever given him off has been three days.”

A foal of 2007, Royal F J was bred by Overbrook Farm from a mating of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Royal Academy and the Kingmambo mare Perpetual Motion. Carava ran him four times at age 2, and from there, the signposts along the Royal F J journey have been many. Here are a few:

Sept. 5, 2010 – Fresh from his maiden win for owner Ron Valenta, after seven second-place finishes, Royal F J is tossed into the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby and finishes a game third to the erratic Twirling Candy.

Nov. 5, 2011 – After the Valenta dispersal, Carava ends up owning Royal F J, and in his first start for Carava’s Oakhart Racing, he wins an allowance race going down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita by a neck under Martin Pedroza, who has become his regular companion.

Feb. 13, 2013 – Making his 40th start, Royal F J wins under the colors of Carava patrons Howard and Janet Siegel, again showing his affection for the downhill turf course at Santa Anita while recording the 94 Beyer Speed Figure that would be his career high.

March 6, 2015 – Making his 67th start for Carava, the 8-year-old Royal F J wins for the fifth time down the hill, only this time he is claimed – claimed! – by trainer Ron Ellis for $25,000. Carava, the Siegels, and new partner Chris Curtis claim him right back in his next start for $32,000.

March 19, 2016 – Royal F J is claimed out of that 89th start for $20,000 by trainer Elmer January, for whom the horse never finishes better than fourth.

“He didn’t even run in claiming races for a while,” Carava said. “Then, when he showed up so cheap, I just couldn’t keep watching him do that. But even though he didn’t run well for the other guy, he took pretty good care of him. And he got right back into the program with us.”

There is every possibility that Royal F J was just plain homesick.

“He does like doing things the same way at the same time every day,” Carava said. “I train him early. His works are at 5 o’clock because any later, he gets upset. And I never work him on Lasix because he’s not a bleeder.”

Sunday’s race will be the sixth for Carava since Royal F J returned to the fold. He won a race at Del Mar in December and was third in both appearances this year. If he’s not careful, he could glide gracefully into the 100-start club.

“He has extremely good conformation,” Carava said. “He is also a way more talented horse than he’s ever showed, essentially running at half to three-quarter speed and never hard enough to hurt himself. He has a very strong self-preservation gene. And I don’t want to jinx myself, but God’s honest truth, we never have stuck a needle in that horse anywhere, other than to give him Lasix.”

The Carava stable, usually a bastion of consistency, is off to a tough start this year, with no wins in its first 25 starts, while a dozen have hit the board. There is every reason to believe Royal F J, with his eight wins and 33 placings, might turn things around.

“He doesn’t win a ton of races,” Carava said, “but I’ll tell you what – he’s the kind of horse who seems like he’s there when you really need him. You can’t ask for more than that.”