06/11/2009 12:00AM

A long way from Affirmed to Ukiah


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Tiffany & Co., makers of fine doodads, has gone another year without selling one of those handsome, three-cornered Triple Crown trophies. They'll survive.

The last one issued, in 1978, is still safely in the possession of Patrice Wolfson, who bred and raced Affirmed with her late husband, Louis Wolfson. It is also to Affirmed's everlasting credit that he went on to be a better 4-year-old than a 3-year-old, if that's possible, and one of the trophies from his 1979 collection came from an inspirational piece of work in the Californian, at Hollywood Park.

Affirmed had not raced for 2 1/2 months. He was dropping back from the 10 furlongs of the Strub Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap to the 1 1/16 miles of the Californian. Under the peculiar weight penalties of the race, Affirmed was required to carry 130 pounds, the same packed by Nodouble in 1970, Dr. Fager in 1968, Pretense in 1967, and Round Table in 1958. Of those, only Dr. Fager was able to win.

The 1979 Californian also marked the coming-out party for trainer Lazaro Barrera and his freshly repaired heart. Three days after Affirmed won the Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, the trainer checked himself into the hospital for heart bypass surgery. He was 54.

Barrera's son Larry and assistant Joe Garcia ran the barn while Laz recuperated. But he did come back just in time to give Affirmed a five-furlong work in 56.60 seconds to sharpen him for the shorter Californian. Barrera was also smitten by the more mature version of Affirmed.

"There was a big change," Barrera said later on. "He got bigger, heavier, and he grew an inch taller."

In the race, Barrera told Laffit Pincay to go for the lead, challenging both Sensitive Prince, who nearly beat Affirmed in the Jim Dandy, and Little Reb, who did upset Affirmed in the Malibu. Affirmed took command on the quick run to the first turn and cooked both of those quick opponents, then cruised home by five lengths over Syncopate. Pincay's reaction was simple and to the point:

"I'll never see a better horse."

That is certainly the case on Saturday, when the Californian is run for the 56th time at Hollywood Park. But that is not to disparage any of the 12 entered to participate. They are a lively, intriguing bunch, topped by 2008 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Mast Track, recent Mervyn LeRoy Handicap winner Ball Four, and the once-beaten Rail Trip, who ran second in the LeRoy last time out.

The race itself is a much different creature than it was in Affirmed's day. It is nine furlongs instead of 8 1/2, and the highest possible weight has been scaled back to 126 pounds from those glorious 130s. The only thing that has remained the same is the purse of $250,000, which is an embarrassment. Adjusted for inflation, a comparable purse today whould be about $734,000.

Doug O'Neill and principal owner Paul Reddam won't complain, though, if their recent acquisition Ukiah can get a piece of the devalued Californian pie. A gray son of Unbridled's Song, the 7-year-old Ukiah has labored at the opposite end of the Thoroughbred spectrum from the likes of Affirmed and Dr. Fager. After a career of just 12 starts, Ukiah will be making his stakes debut in the Californian. Corey Nakatani rides.

Ukiah was claimed in March for $25,000 from trainer John Shirreffs and owners Ann and Jerry Moss. You have to admire the O'Neill crew for their spunk, since it can be argued that few trainers delve deeper into the potential of each horse than Shirreffs. In 10 starts for the trainer of Zenyatta, Giacomo, Tiago, and Life Is Sweet, their stablemate Ukiah never made it past his nonwinners other than. Claiming one from Shirreffs and banking on moving him up is like buying a Picasso with the idea that all the painting needs is a little more blue.

"Shirreffs, yeah, I can't believe Zenyatta hasn't been winning by 20," O'Neill said.

Great. Doug O'Neill, stand-up comedian. But seriously . . .

"One positive thing about claiming a horse from an outfit like John Shirreffs's is that you know they've been well cared for," O'Neill said. "You can be confident you're getting a horse that's still in one piece.

"There's a flipside to that," O'Neill went on. "You know John knows what he's doing, and he's putting the horse in that claiming race because that's where he thinks he belongs. You're hoping there's an upside, but you also have to be aware that you might be adding just another claiming horse to your barn."

Of course, it has been done before, as recently as last Friday in the $200,000 Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park, won by Eldaafer, a $20,000 claim from the top-class Kiaran McLaughlin stable. After a lifetime in sprints, Ukiah has run twice in routes now for O'Neill, winning a starter event and then stepping up to finish a solid second in allowance company. There also was a key equipment change.

"The day we claimed him, he was so full of himself we couldn't scope him," O'Neill recalled. "I called Paul and told him I really didn't think the horse needed to be a full horse, even with his great pedigree. Paul gave the okay, and we gelded him."

Four years ago, O'Neill won the Californian with a gelded former claiming horse named Lava Man, who went on to win three straight Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita Handicaps, and a Pacific Classic.

"I know Lava Man, and this guy's no Lava Man," O'Neill said. "But we're excited. It looks like a wide-open race with a lot of speed, and even though he didn't win last time, he came home with a lot of interest. So let's see what he can do against the big boys."