04/19/2012 1:34PM

Hovdey: San Juan Capistrano is in Clancy's blood

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It is difficult to convey the high esteem in which the San Juan Capistrano Handicap was once held. Might as well wax rhapsodic over the Rainbow Room, and wonder if it ever will be churning out those New York memories again.

There was a reason that Johnny Longden, who’d won more races than jockey in history, chose the 1966 San Juan Capistrano to be his final ride.

There was a reason Elliott Burch – trainer of Hall of Famers Sword Dancer, Arts and Lettters and Fort Marcy – referred to the San Juan’s mile and three-quarters as one of America’s greatest races, especially after he finally won it in 1976.

And there was a reason that Charlie Whittingham, a discerning collector of rich events for mature Thoroughbreds, ended up with 14 San Juan trophies on his shelf, engraved with dates ranging from 1957 to 1989.

For those who still care about the San Juan and what it represents in terms of both racing history and the substance of the breed, Sunday’s presentation atop Santa Anita Park’s closing program is less than inspiring. The pool of quality grass horses game for the 14 furlongs has become desperately shallow, and the money offered – just $150,000 – hardly encourages widespread participation.

Don’t bother Sean Clancy with any such distractions, though. As far as he is concerned, the San Juan Capistrano is still a bucket list prize of the highest rank, a belief rubbed deep into his DNA. Like so many fellow travelers spliced forever to the sport, Clancy blames his father.

“Before I knew anything about the race,” Clancy explained, “whenever we had a horse that wasn’t working out, or something would go wrong, my dad would throw his hands up and say, ‘There goes the San Juan Capistrano.’”

“Dad” is the respected Pennsylvania horseman and former jump rider Joe Clancy Sr., who figured that any race coveted by owners like Paul Mellon, Aaron Jones, Liz Tippett and Howard Keck, or by trainers like Horatio Luro, Hirsch Jacobs, Ron McAnally and that guy Whittingham must be worth the candle.

The senior Clancy also must answer for the fact that his son Sean has made a mark not only as a champion steeplechase jockey but also an Eclipse Award winning writer and author of “Barbaro: the Horse That Captured America’s Heart.” He also photographs well and blogs intermittently.

These days the ever-restless Sean is pouring heart, soul, and pocketbook into his northern Virginia farm and a growing bloodstock business in partnership with his wife, Anne. To that end, the Clancy colors of Riverdee Stable will be flying proudly in the San Juan on atop Eagle Poise, a son of Empire Maker whose victory in the mile and three-quarter Valedictory Stakes at Woodbine at least puts him in the hunt.

If the name rings a distant bell to West Coast fans it’s okay. Eagle Poise was among Bill Mott’s Juddmonte Farm contingent at Santa Anita the winter of 2010. And although he could not be found at the end of the Strub or the Santa Anita Handicap, Eagle Poise did manage a third-place finish in the Tokyo City Handicap at a mile and a half on the synthetic main.

By November of that year Eagle Poise was up for auction, and Clancy pounced, for $65,000, putting his money on the line with partner Mark Grier.

“I’d been following this horse for years,” Clancy said. “Empire Maker is my favorite stallion. I was nuts over that horse when Bobby Frankel had him. Buying Eagle Poise, the idea was making him into a jumper, but then when we got to thinking about maybe running him on the flat some more.”

So they did. Eagle Poise ran four times for Riverdee at the end of 2011 and won himself out, earning $140,000, most of it in the Valedictory on Woodbine’s closing day, Dec. 4. It should be noted that Eagle Poise is trained by Graham Motion, even though the Clancys did their part.

“My dad got him first,” Clancy said. “He castrated him, then I brought him to our farm. I rode him around some and frankly he was so fresh, and I was so old, I knew pretty much right away I needed to send him to Graham. That’s the one thing you learn in a thousand jump races – your limitations.”

Riverdee is the name of a horse from Clancy’s youth. He was bought cheap and carried the teenage Clancy over hurdles at the very start of his riding career, in 1988. He retired from riding in 2000.

“He was the first horse I made any money on, and an awesome little horse,” Clancy said. “Riverdee is still alive, 28 now, and living on a farm my father manages in Pennsylvania.”

Clancy, obviously smitten, begins a physical description of Eagle Poise with, “He’s about perfect in my mind – not too big and not too small,” and continues:

“He’s athletic, one of those horses who flips his front legs a little farther than the average horse, and real light on his feet – kind of bounces up and down off the ground.

“He’s always been a nice horse,” Clancy went on. “We haven’t done anything miraculous. It was just a matter of him getting older more than anything. And us being lucky enough to get him.

“We know he can go a distance of ground at Woodbine on Polytrack,” Clancy added. “Now the question is can he do it on grass. He could have run in the Elkhorn at Keeneland going a mile and a half, but that’s too short for him.”

The names of recent San Juan winners do not exactly raise gooseflesh, but for those inspired to write the history of the game, like Sean Clancy, it matters not. The chance to be a part of that history makes the effort worthwhile. And he’ll give you the angle for free.

“Leave it to me,” he said, “to buy a horse that I’ve got to travel 2,000 miles for an extra quarter mile.”