02/20/2014 5:10PM

Jay Hovdey: From San Luis Rey Downs to the winner's circle

Benoit & Associates
On the Backstreets, a San Luis Rey Downs resident, scored in the Sweet Life Stakes.

It’s not like the place wasn’t already on the map. San Luis Rey Downs was built in 1969. But the cluster of runners that vanned up to win at Santa Anita Park last weekend helped poke a hole in the idea that the newly invigorated training center is located somewhere near the ends of the earth. It’s not, although you can see it from there.

Last Saturday, Peter Miller’s San Luis Rey stable cracked with On the Backstreets (by Street Boss, out of a Springsteen classic) in the $81,650 Sweet Life Stakes down the hillside turf course, then came right back on Sunday to win the $97,450 Baffle Stakes, also down the hill, with the Tribal Rule gelding Red Outlaw.

For icing, the Miller barn popped later on Sunday with the 29-1 Rathbaun in a $60,000 allowance/optional claimer, then kept rolling into the Monday holiday program with the $25,000 claimer Keyboard Courage in the first and the Street Cry colt Garen, a 3-year-old maiden going long, in the second.

Not to be outdone, the San Luis Rey branch of the John Sadler operation shocked Monday’s fifth, a maiden turf sprint, with Vanlose Stairway, a son of Leroidesanimeaux, at 25-1. Sadler’s main office is at Santa Anita – that’s where his salty 3-year-olds Candy Boy, Kristo, and Kobe’s Back all live – but he has a full barn at San Luis Rey as well.

The Miller five-pack put his scrappy, all-purpose barn in third on the Santa Anita trainers’ table behind the mega-stables of Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer, with 16 wins to their 22 each entering the week. Asked if he was at disadvantage training out of a facility more than 90 minutes by unpredictable freeway from the racetrack, Miller looked around, sniffed the clear air of North San Diego County and cocked an ear to the eerie quiet of San Luis Rey.

“Guess not,” he replied.

This is nothing Miller hasn’t done before. San Luis Rey, located in Bonsall, was his home base through the fledgling years of his career, marked by a breakthrough 2007 Del Mar season during which he won 11 races out of San Luis Rey, including the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante with Set Play. Now, after several years training out of Hollywood Park, Miller is happy to be back at the training center.

“You’d have to think the horses would enjoy it more, training where there’s less of a crowd,” Miller noted. “I think it’s good for the people, too.
Miller is full-time on-site at San Luis Rey, while Sadler is hoping to spend at least two days a week at the training center.

“It’s a lot of driving, back and forth to Santa Anita to run,” Miller noted. “But I’ve got a Prius, and that lets me use the diamond lane.”

Questions of whether or not a top horse can win a major race at Santa Anita out of San Luis Rey could be answered sooner than later. Miller has La Brea Stakes winner Heir Kitty training there along with Appealing Tale, an impressive allowance winner who is being pointed for the Santa Anita Handicap. Miller also has welcomed into his San Luis Rey barn the 2012 Hollywood Derby winner Unbridled Command, last seen finishing third to Animal Kingdom and Point of Entry in the 2013 Gulfstream Park Turf Championship.

“We’re hoping to get him back to the races later this spring,” Miller said.

Sadler’s time at San Luis Rey will be dictated by the schedule of his marquee 3-year-olds. With the Kentucky Derby in the air, he is not straying too far. In the meantime, he’s got his right-hand assistant, Larry Benavidez, running the show at San Luis Rey.

“Basically all of our Hollywood horses have gone to San Luis Rey,” Sadler said. “These are horses coming off layups, and the 2-year-olds who will be going in there first. Then there’s a filly like Browsing, who won last Friday. She’s always trained at the off-track because she likes it a little more quiet.

“I was very happy with the surface there, and the barns are beautiful,” Sadler noted. “They’ve got great ventilation; they’re not enclosed, a very good atmosphere.”

The shifting landscape in Southern California is starting to come into focus. Well-known trainers like Bob Baffert, Art Sherman, Mike Puype, and Kathy Walsh have settled horses into new digs at Los Alamitos, where the new one-mile dirt surface is getting good early reviews, while Doug O’Neill and Mark Glatt have set up shop at Barretts Racing and Sales at Fairplex Park, not far from their Santa Anita stables.

Right now, Sadler and Miller are the major players using San Luis Rey, in addition to John Shirreffs, whose 2-year-olds will be populating the barn soon. Michelle Dollase, stabled in the San Luis Rey barn once used by Charlie Whittingham, will have horses there for Carla Gaines and Richard Mandella.

“It will very important that you can prove you can win out of there at the big track,” Sadler said. “You don’t want it to be known as a training center where you can take horses only so far. If they can run well out of there it will be huge.”