08/01/2013 3:06PM

Jay Hovdey: Nothing synthetic about Hirsch fillies and mares

Shigeki Kikkawa
Quiet Oasis wins the Royal Heroine Mile.

It seems there’s never a week that goes by anymore without a bunch of demanding adolescents – better known as 3-year-olds – trying to hog the racing spotlight.

But not even the $750,000 in casino money offered on Saturday afternoon in the West Virginia Derby can steal the show from the collection of battle-hardened warriors going forth at the same 5:45 p.m. (Eastern) post time in the $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga.

Of course, there’s always a chance that some of the kids running at Mountaineer Park will grow up to be another Fort Larned, Ron the Greek, Cross Traffic, or Mucho Macho Man. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

Three hours after the Whitney is official, and the celebrating principals are safely tucked into Siro’s, Del Mar will offer a bookend of sorts with the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap, a Grade 1 enterprise for fillies and mares. This should be a good one, with a deep field in no danger from either Royal Delta or Joyful Victory, stabled some 3,000 miles away.

The California mares have a right to be looking over their shoulders. The one time Royal Delta shipped West she took the field in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic on a tour of Santa Anita Park and left them spinning their wheels. Joyful Victory finished second to fellow eastern invader Love and Pride in the 2012 Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita, then returned in March of 2013 to romp by four lengths in the Santa Margarita Invitational Stakes.

The only invading being done for the Hirsch is by Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Sisterhood, who was second in a couple of Midwestern stakes on synthetic surfaces like Del Mar’s Polytrack. Sisterhood also has poached the name of the fine turf mare who won the Santa Barbara, the Gamely, and the Boiling Springs between 1979 and 1981 for owner Harbor View Farm and trainer Laz Barrera. Then again, with original names being so scarce, maybe it’s just an homage.

Clearly, California’s ongoing experiment with synthetic surfaces has limited management’s ability to import marquee players, but it does get the creative juices flowing among the locals. Trainer Simon Callaghan, for instance, shifted the British grass filly Byrama to Hollywood Park’s synthetic main track to win the Vanity Handicap this summer for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Byrama is back to try the Hirsch, in which she must face defending champ Include Me Out.

A careful look at the past performances of Paul Reddam’s Quiet Oasis, winner of the 2012 Royal Heroine Mile, reveal that this daughter of Oasis Dream won the second start of her career in September of 2010 at Kempton Park over a Polytrack all-weather surface. Del Mar is also a Polytrack product, but as trainer Ben Cecil noted, the definition can be slippery.

“The track is different from last summer’s,” Cecil said as he admired Quiet Oasis in her outdoor pen. “Last year, it was a much looser surface, and there was considerably more kickback. This year, it’s being packed and watered more, making it more conducive to speed.”

Speed over a route of ground is something Quiet Oasis can deliver, if necessary, although her edgy disposition is better served if she can fall into a less frantic tempo. Her only poor race in seven California starts came in the 2011 Matriarch when she was too fresh for her own good. Otherwise she’s been first, second, or a close third, as she was to Tiz Flirtatious and Lady of Shamrock in the Santa Ana Handicap last March.

Such consistency makes her surrender in the Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland in April all the more baffling, when she finished a poor eighth of nine.

“She’s quite a nervous filly, and that one time we shipped to Keeneland she ran terrible,” Cecil said. “She lost a lot of weight on that trip, and she came back with several things just not a hundred percent.”

By the looks of Quiet Oasis, peaceful in her pen, all her weight has returned, and the only evidence of the Keeneland ordeal was a dark, healed shipping scrape defacing the small white star between her eyes.

“Since she’s a bit high strung she normally has a goat in with her, but the goat has an udder infection and she was licking the goat’s wound,” Cecil said. “So we had to quarantine the goat.”

The story had taken an odd turn, from the sober analysis of the mare’s chances in the Hirsch to an appreciation for the role of a small farm animal in the emotional welfare of a nervous Thoroughbred. Still, the thought occurred: If a goat was part of the key to Quiet Oasis winning the Wilshire Handicap at Hollywood last year at odds of 15-1, shouldn’t there be some sort of designation in the past performances? Wisely, Cecil did not take the question seriously.

“I’ve had this goat forever,” Cecil said. “She can’t walk, except on her knees. Her name is Nancy.”

At that moment Nancy was kneeling in straw bedding in a yard-wide gap between two pens, close enough for Quiet Oasis to be comforted but safely out of tongue’s reach.

The Cecil stable, struggling by its past standards, could use a boost from the return of a quality runner like Quiet Oasis. The barn always has developed and attracted talent – Golden Apples, Squeak, Queenie Belle, and Hoh Buzzard, to name just a few – but the last major Del Mar race Cecil won was the 2009 Del Mar Mile with Ferneley.

The clouds broke last weekend with the victory of the Italian filly Good Karma for Arnold and Ellen Zetcher in the Luther Burbank on the Santa Rosa turf. Cecil saw the win as a good omen.

“Things are starting to look up,” he said.

Now, if he can just fix the goat.