01/05/2012 4:11PM

Hovdey: Trip to Dubai a matter of risk vs. reward

Benoit & Associates
Kettle Corn, winner of Hollywood Park’s Native Diver Handicap, is eyeing a trip to Dubai.

As this is written by the shores of the Pacific, in a land a dozen times zones to the east, or west – depending on which way you face – the emirate of Dubai is gearing up for a three-month season of Thoroughbred racing that pretty much carves the heart out of the older horse division in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

The temptation is simply too difficult to resist. Topped by the $10 million Dubai World Cup, a pair of $5 million grass races, and seven-figure events for both milers and sprinters, World Cup Day on March 31 will attract a vigorous colony of gold-digging expatriates, Americans on the road with dollar signs dancing. The racing at imposing, exotic Meydan is dazzling enough. Just wait until unsuspecting Yanks get a load of the City of Dubai, a Middle Eastern version of Vegas on steroids, with the dizzying demands of non-stop consumption replacing the more mundane business of table games.

Thursday was the first of 16 programs to be offered in that distant desert, and it was somewhat ironic that the headlined event was an international all-star jockey competition, dubbed the Meydan Masters, which did not include a single U.S.-based jockey. As far as international goes, the top 10 jockeys on the 2011 U.S. purse standings came from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Peru, France, Mexico, Arizona, Panama, and Barbados, so it’s Dubai’s loss.

Four of those guys will be in action at Santa Anita on Saturday, spreading their talents over the two feature races. In the $100,000 Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds, Rafael Bejarano will buckle onto the Baffert-Pegram rocket known as Secret Circle and see if he can get the mile, while Garrett Gomez picks up Darley’s promising Out of Bounds from Bejarano, Julien Leparoux reunites with Stonestreet Stable’s smart maiden winner Hierro, and Joel Rosario gets another crack at the fair circuit sharpie Longview Drive for Jerry Hollendorfer and owner Steve Beneto.

Later in the day, Rosario and Bejarano will continue their pas de duex at the top of the California standings aboard Tweebster (Rafael) and Tres Borrachos (Joel) in the San Pasqual Stakes. Eight run for a $150,000 purse.

That sticks a little in the throat – “stakes.“ The San Pasqual is marking its 75th running, and all but a handful have been presented as an old-fashioned handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, in the series of beats leading up to the Santa Anita Handicap in early March.

San Pasqual Handicap winners Silver Charm, Twilight Agenda, Super Diamond, Precisionist, Flying Paster, Valdez, Ack Ack, Nodouble, Native Diver, Olden Times, Rejected, Thumbs Up, and Mioland carried 125 pounds or more. But that was then. California’s racing secretaries are weaning themselves of handicaps these days, instead relying on the badly flawed graded race system to shape the weights of many stakes events. Since 2011, the San Pasqual field has weighted itself, so this time around Tres Borrachos carries 123, while the rest pack 118.

The elephant missing from the room is a horse named Kettle Corn, the rising star of the division. When he burst up the rail to defeat Tres Borrachos in the Native Diver Handicap – handicap! – on Dec. 3, he was continuing an upwardly mobile trajectory that should have put him squarely in the San Pasqual driver’s seat.

Alas he’ll stay in the barn, perfectly sound and healthy. Turns out, as far as trainer John Sadler and his patrons, Lee and Sue Searing, are concerned, Kettle Corn is a specialist and will be treated that way, at least for the time being.

“He doesn’t have any dirt form,” Sadler said. “He’s clearly a synthetic horse.”

Half a dozen years ago, the term did not exist, or if it did, as a arch description of a horse not quite genuine. Before the onset of engineered surfaces, who would want a Thoroughbred described as “synthetic?”

Now, it’s a selling point, which is why Kettle Corn, a star on the rise, will likely be seen only once at the most during the Santa Anita meet.

“We didn’t pay a lot of money for him, so we’re already golden,” Sadler said. “That’s why I want to try and manage him perfect.”

Sadler has a pretty good Dubai batting average. He won the 2004 Golden Shaheen with Our First Recruit, then was eighth in the same race with Machismo in 2009. Kettle Corn would target the $1 million Godolphin Mile.

“I have definite opinions on the workouts before you go, how you space them,” Sadler said. “You’re running in a non-medication jurisdiction, so there’s how you want to handle those issues. You wouldn’t want to take a bleeder over there.”

Sadler is thinking about a turf race at Santa Anita with which to prep Kettle Corn for Dubai’s synthetic Tapeta surface.

“I’ve even looked at Golden Gate and Turfway,” he added, Turfway being Polytrack and Golden Gate the only Tapeta surface in the western United States.

One way or another, Sadler concedes that a trip to Dubai will knock Kettle Corn out of a potentially lucrative summer at Hollywood Park, over a surface he loves.

“It becomes a situation of risk and reward,” Sadler said. “Win or lose over there, you have to give them time to recover.”

With Kettle Corn otherwise aimed, Sadler will try to win the San Pasqual with a horse a little farther down the bench. Java Man, a son of Medaglia d’Oro trained previously by Tom Albertrani, was well beaten by Kettle Corn in both the Native Diver and an allowance race at Del Mar last summer. He does have something Kettle Corn does not, however, displayed by an allowance win at Santa Anita during the autumn meet.

“He loves the dirt,” Sadler said.