02/22/2017 3:40PM

Hovdey: St. Joe Bay could take Kent off Dubai duck

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Shigeki Kikkawa
St. Joe Bay has won three straight sprints for trainer Peter Miller (right), all with jockey Kent Desormeaux in the irons.

The idea of sprinters running for millions of dollars is not exactly new, and opportunities abound. The Breeders’ Cup Sprint has been around since 1984, while the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint was added in 2008. The Golden Shaheen has been a mainstay of the Dubai World Cup card from the beginning. The Hong Kong Sprint became a million-dollar affair in 2001, and now Australia has upped the ante with its $10 million Pegasus-like sprint coming in October, modestly christened “The Everest.”

The funny thing is that even with so much cash available at the top of the game, nobody ever breeds or buys a horse with the ambition of getting a sprinter – particularly not when the result is a grandson of A.P. Indy whose third dam is none other than Susan’s Girl, the three-time champion of the early 1970s who won 11 major stakes between nine and 10 furlongs.

St. Joe Bay is the name of that sprinter, and he is the best in the West right now, at least pending the 4-year-old debut of 2016 Eclipse Award sprint champ Drefong and the reemergence of the consistent Masochistic from the strange cloud of his Breeders’ Cup steroid positive.

With three straight wins, the last two in stakes, St. Joe Bay has put the $2 million Golden Shaheen at Meydan on March 25 squarely in the picture for trainer and co-owner Peter Miller and his partner, David Bernsen. To that end, Miller sent the 5-year-old son of Saint Anddan out for a solid drill at San Luis Rey Downs on Wednesday, about three weeks before he would be shipping to the Middle East.

“We tried him a route on the dirt, a mile on the turf, down the hill at Santa Anita, and he was good at everything he tried,” Miller said as he watched from the clocker’s stand. “But now, going 6 or 6 1/2 furlongs, he is very good.”

The question hung like a slow curve: Why did it take so long to figure that out? Before St. Joe Bay began his mini-streak, he had run in seven straight races at a mile. Miller shrugged and grinned.

“You try everything sometimes before it all clicks,” he said. “In his case, I think three things happened. We gelded him. We got Kent to ride him. And we’ve stuck to sprints, which is what he wants to do.”

As if anyone needs to be told, “Kent” is that Desormeaux dude who knocked off $9.2 million in purses last year – which included the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, and Haskell Invitational aboard Exaggerator – and 109 winners from just 585 mounts. Only five riders in history have had their horses earn more than his $271.5 million, and his single-season win total of 598 from 1989 still stands.

Desormeaux made the long haul from his Los Angeles-area home to work St. Joe Bay on Wednesday, chauffeured by his wife, jockey Rosie Higgins. He stretched, checked in with Miller, and reflected on the development of St. Joe Bay as a sprinter of consequence.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Desormeaux said, “that day he won at Del Mar, I don’t know a sprinter who could have beaten him. He almost ran out from under me.”

He was talking about the Dec. 4 allowance win by 6 1/2 lengths that lit the fuse on St. Joe Bay’s current run at Santa Anita, which includes a dead-heat win in the Midnight Lute Stakes (with stablemate Solid Wager) and a sharp score in the Palos Verdes on Feb. 4.

Desormeaux turns 47 on Feb. 27, which makes this reporter feel ancient just typing it. But for all he has accomplished, which includes three Kentucky Derby trophies and a plaque in the Hall of Fame, Desormeaux has yet to win a race on the World Cup card, and he has not ridden at Meydan since the Tapeta surface was replaced by dirt in 2015.

“I was there for the opening of Meydan and for the first World Cup Festival at Nad Al Sheba,” Desormeaux said. “I did manage to finish second in the World Cup once to a pretty good horse.”

That was 2007, when Desormeaux and Premium Tap beat them all but Invasor, who was the 2006 North American Horse of the Year.

St. Joe Bay’s Wednesday work was in company with the talented but bad-footed Calculator. They were in the same class of 3-year-olds of 2015 overshadowed by American Pharoah.

Desormeaux and the dark bay St. Joe Bay broke off at the five-eighths pole about two lengths behind the nearly white Calculator, who had Norberto Arroyo Jr. in the saddle. After a quarter in 26 seconds and change, Miller urged the riders to pick it up through his walkie-talkie, and they did, working on past the San Luis Rey wire to get six furlongs in 1:12 and change. St. Joe Bay closed the gap but did not get on even terms until they geared down, which was just fine with Desormeaux.

“I didn’t want to catch that other horse,” he told the trainer. “He would have had to go in 58, and that would have defeated the purpose. I loved his work. Just right.”

Miller fretted briefly over the team not finishing together, then took a deep breath and conceded the point.

“Kent’s got that magic,” the trainer said. “If he liked it, I liked it.”

Sometimes, it’s just that simple.