04/04/2013 4:25PM

Jay Hovdey: Miller swinging for fences in Santa Anita Derby and Oaks

Email
Tom Keyser
Comma to the Top (2) was considered for the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct but instead will run in the Potrero Grande at Santa Anita.

The truly dedicated horseplayer will be up early Saturday morning to have a stab at the John Smith’s Grand National at England’s storied Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, home of the Beatles, who played a number of gigs just down the road at the Aintree Institute, behind what used to be the Black Bull Club, in 1961 and ’62.

At the time there were four Beatles – John, Paul, George and Pete. As of Thursday at Aintree, 42 horses were declared as running in the Grand National. They have names like Weird Al, Rare Bob, Major Malarky and Harry the Viking, and to earn a share of the $1.5 million purse they must somehow survive 30 fences over four miles, three furlongs, and 110 yards. The fences have names like Foinavon, The Chair, Becher’s Book, and Canal Turn, after which the horses must make a sharp left or else end up in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Give yourself a hand if you can pick the winner, but back home in the States the Santa Anita Derby looks to be just as much of a puzzle. Confidence is running high in the camps of Flashback, Hear the Ghost, and Goldencents, while stakes winners Power Broker, Super Ninety Nine, and Tiz a Minister deserve more than a second look. The winner gets $450,000 and a date with destiny, that harsh mistress, in the Kentucky Derby four weeks hence.

Wading into the mire is trainer Peter Miller with the recent maiden winner Summer Exclusive, who would be the longest price in the field were it not for the presence of a colt named Dirty Swagg, beaten 42 lengths in his last two starts. Hope burns eternal.

The Miller crew also will be flying under the radar in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks earlier on the card with Could Be Trouble, a Cal-bred daughter of Ministers Wild Cat who joined the barn in March. She immediately won a starter allowance race, although that hardly stacks up against the accomplishments of champion Beholder or Santa Ysabel Stakes winner Fiftyshadesofhay, the Oaks headliners.

Miller can be forgiven for taking a swing with longshots in the local Derby and the Oaks. As far as the Dept. of Karma is concerned, both races might owe him a little break. Last year, Miller had to swallow the sight of the stable’s talented Reneesgotzip out-bobbed in the last step by the 13-1 Willa B Awesome in the Oaks, while in 2011 the popular Comma to the Top was headed at the very end of the Santa Anita Derby by Midnight Interlude, also at 13-1.

“Those were a couple of heartbreakers,” Miller said. “Tough to take. Both horses ran so well, it was a shame they had to lose.”

Summer Exclusive, a son of Exclusive Quality, has arrived late to the party. In his first and only start he won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race on March 2, on or near the lead all the way.

“He’s a really big, strong colt who’s had a lot of little things happen that kept setting us back,” Miller said. “I’ll watch him the next couple of days and then make a game-time decision whether or not he’s telling us he should run. But we’ve seen horses 20, 30 to 1 win these races before.”

Such were the sentiments expressed to Miller earlier in the week by Jeff Fink, the managing partner of the Summer Exclusive ownership group.

“After a round of golf and three margaritas, Jeff had me convinced that running was the right thing to do,” Miller said with a laugh. “I didn’t have a whole lot of argument other than the colt’s lack of experience. And of course you don’t know yet if he wants the distance. But basically you’re looking at a bunch of horses, with a couple exceptions, who have won once or twice, and there are more questions in the field than answers. If you’re going to take a shot, you might as well do it for a lot of money.”

Edwin Maldonado, still tracking Rafael Bejarano in the Santa Anita standings, is named on Summer Exclusive, while Miller has secured Gary Stevens to ride Could Be Trouble in the Oaks. Garrett Gomez rode the filly last Saturday in the Echo Eddie Stakes for Cal-breds when she was a troubled seventh of 10 against the boys.

“She got eliminated at the three-eighths, so Garrett just wrapped up on her,” Miller said. “That ended up just a workout, and she was none the worse for wear. When she won the starter allowance the race before that she ran a big number, so for a Grade 1 race like the Oaks there’s reasons to take a shot. Beyond Beholder it’s a fairly suspect group.”

The last time Miller ran a horse back in a week was last month, when Comma to the Top, he of the 2011 Derby heartbreak, won the Tom Fool Handicap in New York seven days after finishing a close third in the San Carlos Stakes at Santa Anita. A thoroughly rested Comma to the Top will be back for more at Santa Anita on Saturday for principal owner Gary Barber in the $150,000 Potrero Grande Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs.

“We looked at the Carter Handicap back in New York the same day,” Miller said. “But Sahara Sky and Discreet Dancer are two very solid horses, and the seven-eighths back there might not be Comma’s best distance. A horse like him, you want to give him every chance to win.”

With Malibu Stakes winner Jimmy Creed and the accomplished Unbridled’s Note in the field, the Potrero Grande offers an entertaining counterpoint to the youth movement of the Santa Anita Oaks and Derby, especially with Comma to the Top bringing his personal history to the dance.

“It looks like he’s the speed of the race, which is not unusual,” Miller said. “He’ll go out there and go as fast as he can as far as he can. I think I’ve said that about him before.”