03/12/2015 2:55PM

Hovdey: Warren’s Veneda out to defend the home team


The owners and trainers of upwardly mobile older fillies and mares were looking at $700,000 on the table Saturday and a choice between running in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park against champion Untapable or the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita Park against a California-bred winner of one major event who was sired by a $1,000 stallion.

Guess which way they went.

Larry Jones, who won the Santa Margarita in 2013 with Joyful Victory, put Fox Hill Farm’s Cassatt on the bus to California for her 10th start at her ninth different racetrack. And no, she’s not on the lam from loan sharks. The daughter of Tapit already has won more than 600 grand.

Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher scanned his overstuffed shed row and noticed that Dame Dorothy, a daughter of Bernardini, was primed and ready to go for owner Bobby Flay, so it was off to Santa Anita for her as well.

“I’d like to think they’re running here because it’s a Grade 1 race and not because they think our mare’s a pushover,” said Craig Lewis, who will be running Ben Warren’s 5-year-old Warren’s Veneda. “But you know what? It wouldn’t be as much fun if they didn’t come out to give it a try.”

Such sentiments coming from a trainer are very sporting, if only semi-sincere. Lewis would have been perfectly content to have faced the same bunch Warren’s Veneda stomped so comprehensively in the Santa Maria Stakes last month. Instead, he found himself confronted with past performances that give the Santa Margarita a depth it might not otherwise have enjoyed.

“Those are two very good fillies,” Lewis said of the invaders. “The Jones filly is 6 for 9, has a lot of speed, and won her last two. The Pletcher filly is 5 for 6. Those are very impressive records. They probably saw she was a Cal-bred and didn’t get too scared.”

Not since Gourmet Girl outpolled a weak older distaff division in 2001 has a filly or mare bred in California made a national impact. Before that, Brown Bess took a female turf title in 1989, and Fran’s Valentine reached similar heights by winning the 1985 Kentucky Oaks. But for the most part, California’s water has been hauled by the boys, led by Hall of Famers Swaps, Native Diver, Tiznow, Best Pal, and Ancient Title and champions Snow Chief, Bertrando, Acclamation, Amazombie, and Thor’s Echo.

Warren’s Veneda is a chestnut daughter of the Unbridled stallion Affirmative and out of the mare More Cal Bread, who is by Flying Continental, the Cal-bred winner of the 1990 Jockey Club Gold Cup. With Tyler Baze along for the ride, Warren’s Veneda has clawed her way to the top of the West Coast division on the strength of consecutive wins in the Paseana Stakes and the Santa Maria. She lost a head bob to Tiz Midnight in the Bayakoa at Los Alamitos in December and before that was parked five wide in the seven-furlong Betty Grable at Del Mar, only to lose by half a length.

“You could make a case for her winning her last four,” Lewis said. “Now she’s matured a lot and really got it together. She’s a rangy, good-sized mare with a lot of depth and just a beautiful action. Really pretty. You don’t see many horses who move that good.”

When they do, when muscle and bone is efficiently aligned, chances are they will stay sounder longer than most of the herd. Since last April, Warren’s Veneda has run once a month, with the exception of last September, when Lewis found nothing at the brief Los Alamitos meet to his liking. The mare works twice in between her races – a half-mile, then five-eighths – a routine that has served her well.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to change something when it works,” Lewis said.

Lewis, 67, does not have a large stable, but he never goes long without a good horse to play with in rich races. He made his name in the 1980s with the major stakes winners Cutlass Reality and Music Merci, followed that up with the Cinderella story Larry the Legend, the winner of the 1995 Santa Anita Derby, and then won half a dozen stakes on both coasts between 2003 and 2005 with the turf mare Valentine Dancer.

More recently, Lewis got the most out of Clubhouse Ride, a two-time winner of the Californian who spent parts of seven campaigns in the barn and recently retired with $1.3 million in earnings to stand at Harris Ranch, the birthplace of California Chrome.

Now comes Warren’s Veneda, a product of the prolific Ben Warren breeding program centered near the Southern California town of Hemet that for several years produced more than 100 foals. Make that formerly prolific.

In late 2011, Warren announced that he was shutting down his breeding program to focus on racing. He also predicted that his coming 2-year-old crop of 2012 was the best he’d ever bred, and his hopes were correspondingly high. Among those 2-year-olds was the filly Warren named in honor of his late wife, Veneda, who died in October 2010.

“You always hear owners talk like that,” said the pragmatic Lewis. “But this is one time the owner was right, even if there was no way he could know it at the time.”