07/14/2009 11:00PM

New star rises in the West

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Benoit & Associates
Rail Trip (center) silenced skeptics by winning the Hollywood Gold Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is nothing like a clean, fast, main track 1 1/4-mile race to provide a little clarity. For that the current crop of older runners can thank Rail Trip, the 2009 winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

There are a lot of reasons to like this horse, and the way he has emerged at the head of the West Coast pack. For starters, Rail Trip is a gelding, age 4, and lightly enough raced to encourage grand scenarios down the line. He is in the hands of owners who have played the game well for a long time. They have very few delusions, and they know a good one when they've got one.

Rail Trip is ridden by a second-generation jock who keeps sneaking up on good horses when no one is looking, and he is trained by an old soul of 49 who wears a nice suit and a bright, toothy smile, which Ron Ellis was flashing as he descended the steps from the box seats to the track last Sunday after his horse blew open the biggest race of the waning Hollywood meet.

Ellis was chattering as he went:

"Well, you know the thing I said at Santa Anita when he ran in a couple of those races was that I was very disappointed there wasn't something to challenge him in there, because he needed to learn something. He got a few easy races. But these last couple of races really toughened him up, and he's trained awesome ever since."

This was all very interesting, but it was also strange, because I hadn't asked Ellis a question, there was no one else around him, and he has never been prone to babbling aloud in public, even though at that moment he would have been perfectly justified. Then I saw it, the dangling little cord snaking down the starched collar of his crisp white dress shirt, that telltale talisman called an IFB (for interrupted feedback - don't ask) worn by on-air television communicators who have the uncanny ability to look you straight in the eye and carry on a conversation with someone else. On cue.

Ellis, who does the occasional guest turn with TVG, was finally released from his electronic tether and stepped out to greet Jose Valdivia Jr. and Rail Trip upon their return. The horse did not look as tired as he should have, especially after running the fastest of the handful of 1 1/4-mile events run over Hollywood's evolving Cushion Track surface. But then, Rail Trip is still a work in progress, with 6 wins now from just 8 starts, and the circumstances of the Gold Cup may have provided a setting for what he was trying to be all along, which is a free-running distance horse who can take or leave the lead, but bristles at restraint.

"I knew I'd be talking to you after the Gold Cup today!" Valdivia shouted down to this reporter as he pulled Rail Trip to a stop. (Memo to self - make sure J. Valdivia has necessary phone numbers for any subsequent prerace advice.)

Valdivia came within a length of winning the Santa Anita Handicap on Champs Elysees earlier this year, and has taken very good races with Val Royal, Heat Haze, Meteor Storm, Arravale and Big Jag, among others. He has thrown body and soul into Rail Trip, and has ridden him since the son of Jump Start made a long-awaited debut last November at Hollywood Park.

Minor injuries had deprived Rail Trip of both a 2-year-old campaign and a shot at the 2008 classics. In some circles this would be reason to mourn. Instead, owners Mace and Samantha Siegel sat back and let Ellis and Valdivia bring Rail Trip along the old-timey way, through conditions and a little stakes race before losing narrowly twice to more serious horses.

Predictably, the gamblers jumped ship, like movie critics piling on Matt Damon for "The Good Shepherd" after he turns out two great Bourne movies, "The Departed" and "Syriana." What's a guy got to do to earn a little good will? Rail Trip had been odds-on in five of his races, and $2.40 to the dollar when favored in the nine-furlong Californian and beaten just three-quarters of a length. He was caught that day, though, and without much of a fight, leading almost everyone, including his trainer, to think that the 10 furlongs of the Gold Cup might be a bridge too far. Which is why he went off a fat 9-1.

"Can you believe it, $21.40, after he was 3-5 two races back?" beamed Samantha Siegel, whose horse had just won a $420,000 purse. She is known to place the occasional bet for sport, and her father, viewing the proceedings from his table in the Turf Club, approves.

"He really got the mile and a quarter, didn't he?" Mace said as well-wishers and friends stopped to pay tribute. "Even then, they don't come easy."

Mace should know. The Siegels have been California stalwarts since the 1970s, when Eddie Gregson trained for the late Jan Siegel, the family matriarch. Later, into the 1990s, the Siegel silks were carried by a parade of young flames trained by Brian Mayberry, including Miss Iron Smoke, Ramblin Guy, Garden Gal, Stormy But Valid, and Prospectors Gamble.

More recently, Mace and Samantha have nailed good pots on both coasts with Arson Squad, Suave, Love of Money, and Declan's Moon, the champion 2-year-old of 2004. Rail Trip gave off early vibes like he was on a similar path, but he clearly had another destiny in store.

"When a plan works out - because there's so many that don't - when a plan works out like this you hardly know what to think," Ellis said. "It's one thing to have faith in a horse. They've got to prove it out there."

Rail Trip proved it and then some, and now they all have him to catch.