09/06/2012 2:49PM

Hovdey: Youth not wasted on Futurity winner

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Benoit & Associates
Owner Arnold Zetcher (right), and his wife, Ellen, greet jockey Rafael Bejarano after Rolling Fog’s victory in the Del Mar Futurity

“Wham bam!” went the starting gate, as the terrified colt Yankee Rebel stood straight up in his number 4 stall and pitched Victor Espinoza against the back doors. Yankee Rebel then began a dangerous pirouette, squirming and thrashing in an attempt to escape. The outrider saw what was happening and rode to the front of the gate, while an assistant starter reached in and grabbed Espinoza before Yankee Rebel could smash him against the rear of the stall. At last the front doors opened, revealing the odd sight of Yankee Rebel’s rump as he was backed into daylight and led by the outrider to safety.

So began – or tried to begin – the 2012 Del Mar Futurity.

Then again, you can’t jam a dozen hot-wired, precocious 2-year-old Thoroughbreds into a starting gate and expect them all to act like gentlemen (and ladies, since there was one filly in the mix). Think of a small car packed with armed clowns. Once Yankee Rebel was dealt with most of the rest of them behaved, although Gabriel Charles, down on the rail, tried to pitch his own little fit.

Before Gabriel Charles could do any damage, starter John Lopez dispatched the field. It was a predictably ragged beginning, although Rafael Bejarano managed to escape unscathed with Rolling Fog from their number 9 post. Thus enabled, Rolling Fog rated neatly off the pace of Caballo del Cielo and Mike Smith, while favored Know More, Paul Reddam’s winner of the Best Pal, was caught behind them in a crowd.

“He was under a lot of pressure and still finished,” said Know More’s trainer, Leandro Mora. “A lot of horses can’t take it, so I was very proud of him. By the time he got out to make his run, the winner was gone.”

It’s always a treat to watch talented young horses finish like they mean it. Rolling Fog took the lead for good approaching the eighth pole and never appeared in danger of getting caught, even though Know More came running late to lose by only a length and a quarter. Figures will be crunched to tell horseplayers exactly what they saw, but the raw visual data was promising. Unless something comes out of the weeds, it looks like Rolling Fog, so far the best of the Bob Baffert 2-year-olds, and Know More, from the same people who campaigned I’ll Have Another, are clearly at the head of the West Coast class.

It’s an odd thing that has happened to the two major 2-year-old events of the American summer season. The Hopeful at Saratoga was demoted last year to a Grade 2 event by the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, while the Del Mar Futurity, despite its Grade 1 status, has been eliminated by Churchill Downs from the point-acquisition system for Kentucky Derby participation.

Take that, you spas.

Of course, winning such races should be its own reward. No matter what arbitrary numeral is appended to the Hopeful, the owners of 2012 winner Shanghai Bobby are fully authorized to say that their colt won the same race as Affirmed, Secretariat, Buckpasser, Native Dancer, and Man o’ War. Arnold and Ellen Zetcher, whether or not Rolling Fog has them dreaming Derby dreams, can take some consolation in the fact that in the last 10 years the Del Mar Futurity winners have included champions Lookin At Lucky, Stevie Wonderboy, and Declan’s Moon.

The Zetchers bought Rolling Fog for $62,000 last April at the Ocala sale of 2-year-olds. At the time he was simply a Florida-bred son of Posse out of an Unbridled’s Song mare named Fog Dance, color indeterminent, but for purposes of registration described as gray/roan.

“He does have an interesting look,” said Arnold Zetcher, the former chairman of the international Talbot’s clothing chain. “I’m not sure he knows what he wants to be yet.”

Except fast. Rolling Fog, now 2 for 3, reduced his first try at seven furlongs to 1:22.96, which fits well with the most recent four runnings of the race over Del Mar’s Polytrack.

“I’d hoped he’d run well, but this is just amazing,” said Zetcher. “With 2-year-olds, though, you just never know. They’re always changing and developing.”

The Zetchers were heading to Lexington, Ky., the next day to accept their second straight Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association award for Western Region owners of the year. Zetcher did not like their chances knocking off the other regional winners Mike Repole, Team Valor, and Ken and Sarah Ramsey for the national award.

“That’s okay,” Zetcher said. “It’s an honor to win the regional award. And we had a pretty good day today.”

Human races had standouts

Hats off to Rafael Bejarano, who led all riders with 52 wins and won a record 13th stakes race of the Del Mar meet with Rolling Fog. And keep the lids doffed for Joe Talamo, second to Bejarano, who won 12 stakes and numbered an impressive 19 grass course scores among his win total of 43.

It helped that Bejarano was so closely aligned with the Baffert stable, second in the final trainer standings. The crown went to first-time champ Peter Miller, who won three races the right way on closing day. Miller, who edged Baffert 21-20, won with the maiden claimer My Slew on the rise, won the CERF Stakes with Santa Ynez Stakes winner Reneesgotzip at odds-on, and took the Pirate’s Bounty Stakes with 4-year-old Comma to the Top, now in his second childhood.

Miller will be batting away a swarm of undeserved asterisks, though, deployed by killjoys who will insist that the stable run by a hybrid named “Leandroneill” won the most races of the summer. Doug O’Neill had 18 wins in his name when he began serving his 40-day total carbon dioxide suspension on Aug. 19, leaving top assistant Leandro Mora in charge, with the blessing of the racing board. All Mora did was win 10 races in 13 days to finish in a tie for fifth in the standings.

Mora, drained after the exciting Futurity, sipped a Del Margarita in the cool of the Del Mar tunnel and reluctantly accepted congratulations as Rookie of the Meet.

“I did train a horse named Jet Charlie in my name many years ago, while I worked for Brian Mayberry,” Mora noted. “Ran him twice and lost him for twelve-five.

“I’m very glad things went so well for us,” Mora added. “My only regret is that Doug could have won the trainer’s title by a mile.”