01/15/2016 3:10PM

Hovdey: Two stakes honor stars in Bray's orbit


The Astra Stakes will be run on Sunday at Santa Anita, followed on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, by the Megahertz Stakes. If they planned it this way, good for them. If they didn’t, good for them anyway.

Astra and Megahertz were the two mares who made the first half of the first decade of the new century so compelling, especially in Southern California, where they owned the grass courses at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park.

They never met – Astra was three years older – but they provided a seamless transition of quality at the highest competitive levels. One week after 6-year-old Astra won her final stakes in the 2002 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park, the 3-year-old version of Megahertz won her first major event in the American Oaks over the same course and mile and a quarter distance.

Astra was the last outstanding horse owned by Allen Paulson, who died in July of 2000, and who measured outstanding horses against Cigar and Arazi, the best of his best. Between the spring of 2000 and the summer of 2002, Astra won seven major events in Southern California, beating mares like Golden Apples, Starine, Happyanunoit, and Tout Charmant along the way.

The Astra is an overnight event at a mile and a half on grass with fillies and mares from Uruguay, Ireland, Brazil, and Great Britain among the nine entered. The Megahertz, which used to be an overnight affair, has been elevated to Grade 3 status for its mile on the grass on Monday.

Megahertz was a Bobby Frankel production, which was perfect, because they had pretty much the same disposition. They always could find something to complain about, even on the sunniest days. But when the stakes were high and the money was down, both the hard-boiled trainer and his combative little chestnut filly would come at you with ferocious intensity.

Megahertz won nine major stakes, including three runnings of the Santa Barbara Handicap, but she never could seem to reproduce her helter-skelter stretch run on the deeper courses of the East and Midwest. It did not matter to Roy and Gretchen Jackson, though, who in 2006 bought Megahertz for $2.1 million in foal to Bernardini. Astra died from colic in 2007 after producing only three foals.

“You know, if you put Astra and Megahertz next to each other, it would have looked like a mare and her foal,” said Simon Bray, the former trainer and current TVG analyst.

Bray is the common thread running between Astra and Megahertz, although lately he has made more headlines dealing with the rare blood disease multiple myeloma than he has picking winners. He hopes to reverse that trend soon.

To that end, Bray is currently hospitalized in a sterile, virtually isolated environment recovering from the debilitating effects of an aggressive chemotherapy treatment that cleared the way for an injection of his own healthy stem cells. As always, and for reasons the more pessemistic among us will never understand, Bray is giving off positive vibes.

“The chemo kills all your blood cells, good or bad, then the stem cells are introduced,” Bray said, sounding much better than he felt. “Think of it as burning down an entire forest, then planting seedlings.”

Or destroying the village to save the village. What this man has gone through.

“I walk a mile a day, wearing gloves and a mask,” Bray said. “My nurses keep telling me I’m the healthiest cancer patient they’ve got. I guess that’s something. I hope to feel well enough to go home in maybe two and a half weeks. Then we’ll see how long it takes to recover and go back to work.”

Bray, who learned the game from horsemen like Henry Cecil and Bill Mott, became a TVG analyst after brief but splashy training career sparked by the 4- and 5-year-old campaigns of Astra, a daughter of Theatrical. After wins in the 2001 Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills, Bray lost her that August when Michael Paulson, Allen’s youngest son and manager of the stable, transferred the Paulson estate horses to Laura de Seroux. Among them was the unstarted Azeri, who went on to be 2002 Horse of the Year.

“Astra was certainly the highlight of my racing career,” Bray said. “There was a tremendous amount of satisfaction in developing her from the time she was a 2-year-old. She was a great, great filly, and great to be around.”

A year after bidding farewell to the Paulson horses, Bray struck a different kind of gold. Simon and Danielle Bray were married in September of 2002 and now have two children: Oliver, 3, and Josie, who was born last July.

Michael Bello, who happened to be Danielle’s uncle, bought Megahertz on Frankel’s recommendation in the fall of 2002 and raced her throughout her American career. Bray was asked if there was ever a chance the filly might have been diverted his way as wedding present from his new Uncle Mike.

“I wish,” Bray said with a laugh. “It would have been perfect.”

Two years later, in December of 2004, Megahertz wrapped up her banner 4-year-old campaign for Bello and Frankel with a narrow loss in the Hollywood Turf Cup. Shortly after that, Bray pulled the plug on his training career and signed on with TVG. If he has any regrets, they are usually laced with whimsy.

“I do wish I would have had Astra then,” Bray said. “I believe she would have beaten Bobby’s filly.”

Got to admit, the man knows how to hold a good thought.