07/18/2013 2:44PM

Jay Hovdey: Sofast gets acclimated for Eddie Read


Once in awhile it’s fun to poke the creatures in the cage, just to see how they’ll react.

Gary Mandella, the taller of the two training Mandellas, was standing in front of the Del Mar stall of a horse with the unlikely name of Sofast, a French colt freshly off both the plane from Europe and the van from L.A. Sofast was bright, though a tad drawn from the ride, and in much better shape than his trainer, who’d been up since about zero dark thirty busy shipping horses south.

Which means, with defenses low, he was ripe to give an honest answer.

“You’re not running him in the Eddie Read, are you?”

“Sure I am,” Mandella replied. “Why not? I’d be crazy not to take advantage of his French training. No sense in me taking a chance messing him up. And you can tell he was with a good French trainer, because he knows how to have his feet picked. He’s not trying to lay down.”

At this, Sofast glanced up from his groom, who was kneeling in the straw administering a light pedicure, and gave his new trainer a look of patronizing disdain, as if to say, “Yes, and I know which fork to use as well.” Then he shrugged, because all French horses are taught to shrug, and went back to supervising his pedicure.

Sofast is a caramel chestnut with an inquiring blaze, four white stockings, and a tail squared off neatly at the hocks. The trainer responsible for Sofast’s good manners is Freddie Head, better known in this neighborhood as the man who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile twice on top of Miesque and three times at the side of Goldikova. Both of those mares were bred and owned by Gerard and Alain Wertheimer, as is Sofast. He is a son of Rock of Gibraltar, who might have won the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Arlington Park if his stablemate Landseer hadn’t broken down in front of him.

Sofast has yet to make such noise, although he has been campaigned the past three seasons as if he was a good horse just waiting for the right moment to shine. His lone stakes win came in a Group 3 event when he was 2, but there have been several close calls since then, including a narrow loss in a Group 2 race at Saint-Cloud, near Paris, last May.

Imports like Sofast ebb and flow with the value of currency and the interest level of foreign owners, but they always invigorate turf racing both East and West. In the $300,000 Eddie Read, which drew a field of 10, he will be facing a field that includes the English horse Slim Shadey, the Japanese horse Barocci, Ireland’s Vagabond Shoes, and fellow Frenchman Lucayan, along with the homegrown Yanks Jeranimo and Fed Biz.

“If I do the textbook thing and let him settle in, wait, be patient, and bring him out later on, then your chances are good of running into a lot tougher horses,” Mandella noted. “When you look at a mile and a mile and one-eighth, you’ve got Wise Dan and Obviously. Then there’s a pretty big drop to the next group, so you’re always looking for a new shooter to step up when one of the big guns aren’t around.”

For the past two seasons the Eddie Read has belonged to Acclamation, the champion older male of 2011. The nine furlongs of the race was not necessarily his best distance, but when trained to the task by Don Warren he made it look easy. Now at stud, Acclamation is a tough act to follow in what has become California’s one and only Grade 1 grass event open to all comers at the distance.

The Read had seven runnings in relative isolation before it became both enhanced and upstaged by the introduction of the Arlington Million, in 1981. As a viable Million prep, the Del Mar event drew well and produced Million winners Tight Spot, Golden Pheasant, and Perrault, as well as runner-up Sharood.

Over time, California stables began to view the Read-Million as an either-or proposition. Whether it was because of the pervasive influence of the late-season Breeders’ Cup or on the shifts in the racing calendar, the West’s impact on the Million waned. In the past 10 years, the only California horses to make much noise at the big dance in Chicago were The Tin Man (trained by Gary’s father, Richard), who won there in 2006 and was second in 2007, and Fourty Niners Son, who finished third in 2005. Storming Home also deserves a nod, since he was about to win in 2003 until he veered out from under Gary Stevens in the shadow of the wire.

This summer, with four weeks between the Read and the Million, the timing seems right if anyone is so inclined. Gary Mandella might consider himself a bit daring in running Sofast this weekend, but he is not looking beyond the Read until he knows how the colt has adapted.

“Freddie sent me all the instructions,” Mandella said. “He told me the horse has to be covered up early or else he’ll get rank. I know he shows a lot of mile races in his form, but I’m not so sure a mile and an eighth might be better for him compared to the pure miles run over here now.”

Anyway, those races are on the schedule for Mandella stable ace Silentio, also owned by the Wertheimers, and residing just down the shed row – shed row in this corner of the Del Mar backstretch defined as a prefabricated line of plywood stalls arranged like cells in the middle of a multi-use building the size of an airplane hangar flooded with artificial light. Saratoga it ain’t.

While Sofast reveals himself in the Read, Mandella hopes to have Silentio back near the top of his considerable game for the Del Mar Mile at the end of the meet. He has not run since chasing Wise Dan in the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland in April, and before that he lost a heartbreaker to Suggestive Boy in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita.

“He might not be quite ready for Obviously in the Del Mar Mile, but you can’t worry about that,” Mandella said. “There’s still a lot of racing to do this year.”