03/14/2013 2:26PM

Jay Hovdey: Huntsville looks to give Abrams a thrill in San Luis Rey

Shig Kikkawa
The 59-year-old Barry Abrams, who has had two throat surgeries to remove malignant tissue, will try to upset the Grade 2 San Luis Rey with the California-bred Huntsville.

A mile and a half grass race at Santa Anita offers both spectators and competitors a fanciful change of pace, starting as it does about three-quarters of the way up the hillside turf course, with the gate set in a notch that points the field at a sloping left-hand turn before they gallop across the dirt strip and onto the flat of the grass course proper.

The setting has played host to at least two of the most exciting versions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the history of the event. In 1993, the intense rivals Kotashaan and Bien Bien reprised their Santa Anita battles from earlier in the year with a half-length decision to Kotashaan that helped him win Horse of the Year. Ten years later, it was High Chaparral and Johar dueling to a dead heat in the 2003 BC Turf, with Falbrav only a head behind them in third.

That’s not to say that any of the runners in Saturday’s $150,000 San Luis Rey Stakes at a mile and a half will show up later in the year when the Breeders’ Cup comes back to town. But it’s early. In the meantime, the San Luis Rey shapes up on paper as either an intriguing rematch between last year’s 1-2 finishers, Bourbon Bay and Slim Shadey, or as the setting in which the globe-trotting Interaction finally will have his day in the California sun.

Those three, with 75 starts among them, give long-distance turf horses a good name. And more often than not it takes a pretty good turf horse to win the San Luis Rey, a race run at a mile and a half since 1955 when Alidon won for movie tycoon Louis B. Mayer and somehow jockey Roy Lumm did 106 pounds.

In the 57 runnings since then, the San Luis Rey has a history dotted with such homegrown winners as Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle, Avatar, Interco, John Henry, and Prized, along with an international gallery that includes Sandpit, Noble Dancer, Perrault, Erins Isle, Caucasus, and Kotashaan.

Year after year, the San Luis Rey has been a generally formful event. It takes a search back to 1991 to find a jaw-dropper like the 29-1 Pleasant Variety, who won for Jerry Fanning and Gary Stevens. But as recently as 2008 the front-running Speedy Pick came within a head and a nose of pulling off a San Luis Rey shocker at 58-1.

Huntsville, a son of Unusual Heat, will attempt to turn the race on its head this weekend when he carries the familiar colors of Madeline Auerbach and her partners David Abrams and trainer Barry Abrams into battle. It’s a tall order, seeing as how Huntsville enters the San Luis Rey with 25 starts and zero stakes wins to his name. But then, his trainer has never been shy about taking a swing with a horse in reasonable form.

“He’s a longshot, no doubt about that,” Abrams said after checking the opposition. “There are some pretty tough horses in there.”

With the exception of John Scott (who scratched out of a chance to chase Game On Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap two weeks earlier), each of the San Luis Rey’s nine entrants has gone at least 10 furlongs in some kind of setting. That’s usually held as good enough to get Santa Anita’s mile and a half, with it’s first three furlongs gradually downhill. Huntsville’s best race lately was a narrow loss to John Scott going a mile and an eighth in the Crystal Water for Cal-breds.

“We bred him, and we always thought he was cut out to be a pretty nice horse,” Abrams said. “He just never seemed to put it all together. I’m hoping the mile and a half will help make a difference.”

Through the first part of his racing life, Huntsville’s record was the punchline to the same setup about the horse who needs more distance. Abrams first sent the 2-year-old version of Huntsville with a string to Woodbine in the summer of 2011, then the following spring vanned him north to Golden Gate Fields, where he finally won a maiden race in his 11th try.

Not long after that, Huntsville was claimed for $40,000, and then claimed right back by Abrams & Co. in his very next race for $50,000 in what could be mistaken as a sentimental gesture.

“We didn’t want to take the chance that he might leave the state,” Abrams said. “I knew he had a lot of good racing in him, and we didn’t want to lose a shot at the breeders awards.”

Drawing a line through Huntsville’s dreary afternoon last September at the L.A. County Fair – when he simply went through the motions on the dirt in the Pomona Derby – since he was reclaimed, the horse has run 10 times, won twice, and finished second four times, three by noses.

“He finds a way to get into trouble somehow, and then just misses,” Abrams conceded.

If nothing else Huntsville carries the flag for California’s premier stallion, Unusual Heat, the 23-year-old son of Nureyev who continues to stand at Harris Farms in the Central Valley, with a full book this year at $20,000 a pop. Among his offspring are champion Acclamation and major stakes winners The Usual Q.T., Usual Suspect, Lethal Heat, Golden Doc A, Pretty Unusual, and Burns.

Abrams, who just celebrated his 59th birthday, is as remarkable as the stallion, at least in terms of the medical miracle he continues to represent. After undergoing a second throat surgery to remove malignant tissue in July of 2011, there was no guarantee he would make it to 2012.

But he did, and although he is a long way from his vigorous youth as a Standardbred trainer, Abrams is at the track every day, tapping into the energy of his horses and looking for the next crackerjack son or daughter of Unusual Heat to come along.

“I live right here by Santa Anita,” Abrams said. “So I wake up every day with someplace to go. How lucky am I? As far as how long I last, I’m on the same schedule as Unusual Heat. We both take it a day at a time and try to make every one of them count.”