01/25/2012 3:49PM

Hovdey: Santa Monica back in deserving spotlight

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Rumor, winner of the Kalookan Queen Handicap, will try to give Richard Mandella another Santa Monica win.

Let this serve as an official “welcome back” from purgatory for the Santa Monica Stakes, nee Handicap, to be run Saturday at a warm and festive Santa Anita Park.

In the recent past, the venerable Santa Monica has been dwarfed by the promotional efforts heaped upon the Sunshine Millions, its quality undercut by races on the Millions program, sucking away many of the best California- and Florida-bred older fillies and mares. Some years, the Santa Monica was offered on the same weekend as the Millions, others only a week removed. The effect, in every case, was to push an important national event to the deep background while elevating restricted races to the center stage.

Now, the Sunshine Millions has mutated into a series of races at Gulfstream Park for Florida-breds, while on the same afternoon Santa Anita gets stuck with the bikini contest – tough break – leaving the wide-open Santa Monica as the centerpiece of the Saturday program.

(As far as that goes, there is only one race of consequence restricted to horses bred in a particular place. That would be the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s own, an event of comprehensive cultural significance that has somehow lasted 151 years. Talk to me about it if the Sunshine Millions Classic is still around in 2020.)

As for the Santa Monica, consider its history. The race came into this world in 1957 as a seven-furlong event for fillies and mares and has never been altered. Such reliability has served as a homing beacon for some of the best mares to ever grace the West. The list of outstanding winners, being long, could be condensed to include champions and Hall of Famers – Bug Brush, Silver Spoon, Gamely, Typecast, Chou Croute, Serena’s Song – but should always leave room to mention Manta, Tizna, Lovlier Linda, Exotic Wood, Honest Lady, Island Fashion, Gaby’s Golden Gal, and last year’s winner, Switch.

Richard Mandella can lay claim to a trio of the lesser known but every bit as worthy Santa Monica winners. In 1991, the trainer won it with Devil’s Orchid, a daughter of Devil’s Bag who finished 1-2-3 in 20 of her 23 starts. In 1999, Mandella took the Santa Monica with Stop Traffic, a daughter of Cure the Blues who defeated the accomplished Belle’s Flag. And in 2005, he won the race with the Argentine mare Salt Champ, who beat the defending titlist, Island Fashion.

“That was her one and only race in the U.S.,” Mandella said of Salt Champ. “We had her here four or five months from South America before she was ready to go, then she came out of the Santa Monica with an injured ligament.”

The sad tale has a happy ending. Salt Champ produced the foal who became known as Champ Pegasus, whose career for Mandella has included three wins in major California grass stakes and a second in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs.

“Devil’s Orchid was a big, stout, good-looking mare who could really run,” Mandella recalled. “Mickey Walls’s father had her out here in California as a 3-year-old, then when he went back to Canada they left her here with me. My good luck.”

As for memories of Stop Traffic, Mandella went all mushy, and with good reason.

“Ah, what a great little mare,” he said. “She was one of the first horses I bought for Mr. Ford.”

That would be Gerald Ford, the Texas financial magnate who has raced the likes of Pleasantly Perfect, Dixie Union, and Minister Eric under the Diamond A Racing banner with Mandella.

“She was in a November mixed sale, and she’d been stopped on with a fractured tibia,” Mandella recalled of her acquisition. “That wasn’t too long after I’d gone through the same thing with Kotashaan – a fractured tibia and four months off. He came back to be Horse of the Year, so when I heard the same thing about her I wasn’t about to let it discourage me, especially since she’d already placed in the Acorn and showed she had a lot of ability.”

Stop Traffic went on to win the Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga, in addition to the Santa Monica and more than $800,000. Mandella calculates it was probably Stop Traffic who set the hook in Ford for competing at the top level of the sport.

“A horse like her will do that to you,” Mandella said.

Ancient history, though, in the face of Saturday’s 55th running of the Santa Monica, in which Mandella will be running Rumor, fresh from a comfortable score in the Kalookan Queen Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on New Year’s Day.

Rumor is a daughter of Indian Charlie, who supplies both speed and class, and the Deputy Minister mare Mini Chat, who never raced. Never mind, though. Mini Chat is out of Phone Chatter, the champion 2-year-old filly of 1993 when she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita Park. Phone Chatter was trained by Richard Mandella.

“Phone Chatter was a big strapping thing – you couldn’t hurt her feelings at all,” Mandella said. “Rumor on the other hand is not a real big filly, and if you look at her funny she loses weight.

“Delicate is the best way to describe her,” he went on. “But if you keep her happy, she does fine. We’ve never over-raced her, and when she runs out of gas we send her out to Julie Adair, who’s got a little place where I freshen her up. That way I don’t go too far backwards on them.”

Rumor’s record belies any delicacy, at least when she shows up. She has raced seven times and won four, with three seconds.

“You’re always worried as to how much you’d be able to get out of her without squeezing too hard,” Mandella added. “That’s why we’ll run her a while and then back off. But there’s no doubting her class. She’s got a heart of gold, and she tries every time.”