02/06/2014 3:29PM

Jay Hovdey: Shirreffs going long in Saturday stakes


To a certain extent, over the past couple of seasons, John Shirreffs has had to reintroduce himself to the Thoroughbred-racing public as somebody other than the man who trained Zenyatta. This has not been easy. As an act, Zenyatta qualifies as impossible to follow.

Shirreffs has picked up a few new clients, added a New York division to his California string, and even increased his activity to a point where, one month into 2014, he is on a pace to flirt with 200 starters this season, a number he’s never hit before.

Still, Shirreffs could use a redefining moment to embellish his post-Zenyatta profile as a trainer of meticulous detail and idiosyncratic horsemanship. And if that moment comes Saturday, no one should be surprised.

To that end, Shirreffs was asked what kind of odds a player should get for nailing a pick three using the three horses he is running in the three Santa Anita stakes. All three are owned by Ann and Jerry Moss.

“Probably about a thousand to one,” the trainer replied. “But then, we know anything is possible when you load them into the gate. Things happen.”

So says the man who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo at 50-1.

Shirreffs will face the hard question first in Saturday’s fifth race when he tries to upset Game On Dude in the $300,000 San Antonio Stakes with Blingo, a 5-year-old son of Artie Schiller. An hour later, he will bring over Utopian, a son of Rock Hard Ten, to meet such solid turf citizens as Jeranimo, Slim Shadey, and Lucayan in the $200,000 San Marcos. Then to top off the day, Shirreffs has maiden winner Cool Samurai ready to make his stakes debut against Midnight Hawk in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis for 3-year-olds. Let the seminar begin.

“The big thing with Blingo is how he gets to the paddock,” Shirreffs said. “He can be very angry. The last time he ran, we had a lot of trouble with him, and there was a race in New York where I didn’t think I was going to get the saddle on him.”

In his last race, a grouchy Blingo finished sixth of seven in the San Pasqual behind Blueskiesnrainbows, who is back in the San Antonio as well. Before that, Blingo won an overnight stakes at Belmont Park.

“The stewards let us take him to the paddock with a pony that day, and it helped a lot,” Shirreffs said. “I’ve asked the stewards if we could do the same thing here on Saturday, have the pony with him from the receiving barn to the saddling enclosure. We’ve also schooled him a lot, so hopefully that will have an effect. If he doesn’t get upset and gets to the track mentally well, I think he’s going to run very well.”

Utopian, now 7, is a typical long-term Shirreffs project who did not win a maiden race until July of his 4-year-old season. He ran one of his best races two years ago in the San Marcos, where Slim Shadey beat him only a head, then later that season he won the Inglewood at Hollywood Park.

Since then, however, Utopian has raced only three times, most recently finishing fourth to Jeranimo and Slim Shadey in the San Gabriel at Santa Anita on Jan. 4. Jose Valdivia rides him back.

“He needed that race,” Shirreffs said. “Valdivia said when he asked him that day, he responded well, so with a little more training under his belt, I look for a good race.”

Mention Cool Samurai around Shirreffs right now and his eyes light up. The son of First Samurai has run only twice, with a close second last fall at Belmont to Wicked Strong (who went on to finish third in the Remsen) and then a maiden win Dec. 27 at Santa Anita. In both races, he closed from the clouds.

“He was at Saratoga last year with our 2-year-olds,” Shirreffs said. “He was a handful, rearing up and acting up, all that stuff. We ended up using the Allen Jerkens trick with the rub rag, flipping it over his head and around his sides to distract him from thinking about the man on his back.”

It was even more of a challenge to get to the bottom of Cool Samurai.

“We would take him from the Oklahoma training track, through the parking lot, across Union Avenue, past the main track, and all the way over to the Clare Court jogging track and back,” Shirreffs said. “That was his summer routine.

“I remember the day I told his rider to gallop him twice around Oklahoma to get him tired for once in his life. But two times around did not get him tired. On the second time around, I was watching this big, beautiful stride, and I thought, ‘We might have one here with some real distance abilities.’ ”

At 1 1/16 miles, the Robert B. Lewis might only scratch the surface of a work in progress like Cool Samurai, but things change quickly in the 3-year-old landscape. His trainer is ready for anything.

“We’re already having a lot of fun with him,” Shirreffs said. “I hope we can have some more.”