11/02/2011 2:31PM

Hovdey: Ultra Blend owner soaking in Breeders' Cup experience

Benoit & Associates
Ultra Blend's win in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar was part of a strong four-race series.

For the third straight year, if anybody’s counting, the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic will have nothing at all to do with determining the finest “lady” in the land.

This is both good and not so good news. After all, the determination of a championship is the point of the exercise, with $2 million in the pot and the whole world watching. The fact that this year’s BCLC might have an impact on the 3-year-old filly championship is being touted as worthwhile consolation, and certainly one of them could win. But the race was designed to showcase the big girls, and all the best big girls have scattered in other directions.

It is hardly a stretch to foresee that by early evening Saturday, for the first time in Breeders’ Cup history, the three marquee races of the festival all will have been won by fillies and/or mares. Goldikova owns the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but there are always poachers, so she will need to walk her beat once more to retire the trophy for good. Sarafina and Midday are every inch the quality of Pebbles and Miss Alleged, the only fillies who’ve taken the Breeders’ Cup Turf. And as for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the colt who steps up to beat the imposing Havre de Grace will probably win it all.

That leaves the Ladies’ Classic as Friday’s child − loving and giving, as the children’s verse goes − in this case striving for relevance having gone without those towering personalities Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace in 2009, ’10 and ’11. A championship race needs its champions.

There is also a residue of the controversy that enveloped the Ladies’ Classic last year, when, in its first running at night, second choice Life at Ten was effectively eased by John Velazquez and finished last after the jockey shared his concerns over her prerace condition with a national television audience.

So what’s the cure for the Ladies’ Classic blues, other than getting rid of the apostrophes? A good story always helps.

There are familiar names in the mix this year − including John Fort’s Peachtree Stable (Plum Pretty), the Farnsworth juggernaut of Florida (Ask the Moon), and two-time Cup winners Paul and Zillah Reddam (Medaglia d’Amour). Foodies would love to see Bobby Flay in the winner’s circle with Super Espresso. And if Jerry Jamgotchian’s Satans Quick Chick upsets, those hooked on social media will finally get to see the man behind the blistering emails aimed at California’s racing institutions.

The Ladies’ Classic also could go to Australians (Miss Match), to the English (Pachattack), or to the Middle East (It’s Tricky, Royal Delta). Then again, the trophy might end up in Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” where Nels Erickson is living the life of a retired college professor, with a little sports gaming on the side.

Erickson, 67, is a lifelong racing fan who finally dipped into the business, spending $20,000 to buy a pair of yearling fillies by the California sire Richly Blended four years ago. One of them didn’t pan out, and the other one became Ultra Blend, a winner of nearly $900,000 who is now taking her owner to the top of the Thoroughbred mountain as one of the 10 entered in the Ladies’ Classic. He’s getting a little dizzy from the view.

“I used to be a professor of history, so I know accidents do occur,” Erickson said Wednesday as he prepared for his first Breeders’ Cup as a fan or otherwise. “I feel a little bit like the Forrest Gump of horse racing. Blame it all on serendipity.”

Forrest Gump he ain’t, unless there was another Gump who was a UC Berkeley graduate who later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Dakota and is a published author whose subject of expertise is early 20th century America. Oh, and a contract bridge grand life master, as well.

Erickson has interests in 15 other racehorses, trained by either Art Sherman or Art’s son, Steve. It was Steve Sherman who trained the young version of Ultra Blend when she took her maiden by six lengths and her subsequent start by 10, both at Golden Gate in November 2008. Erickson will be packing the finish photo of that 10-length win with him to Kentucky.

“The favorite that day threw Russell Baze at the start and headed off down the track, way ahead of the rest,” Erickson said. “Ultra Blend was handling the others pretty easily and could have just coasted. At least that’s what the jockey wanted her to do. But when she got focused on that other horse up ahead she went after her and would not stop until she caught her. The chart might say she won by 10. As far as she was concerned she beat the horse she had to beat by half a length.

“Steve Sherman took one look at the photo and said, ‘This picture is the definition of heart,’ ” Erickson said. “I had to agree.”

In a career of 11 wins in 24 starts Ultra Blend has done nothing to betray the impression left by that day. At one point she came back good as new from a 10-month layoff after ankle surgery. Until last May, she spent most of her time racking up handy wins for nice pots against fellow Cal-breds, but then Erickson and Art Sherman crossed their fingers and tossed her into the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park against the accomplished St Trinians.

St Trinians beat her but was disqualified, giving Ultra Blend her first major win and a leg up on a four-race series that included a razor-thin second in the A Gleam, a victory in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar, and a close second to Zazu in the Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita. Horseplayers should be warned that the last time Ultra Blend finished out of the money was 16 starts ago, in June 2009.

“Something like the Breeders’ Cup always seemed out of my league,” Erickson said. “I’ve never even been to Churchill Downs, so I know I’ll be walking around oohing and ahhing. One thing is certain − retirement was never supposed to be like this.”