10/08/2009 11:00PM

Not quite a Breeders' Cup goldmine


ARCADIA, Calif. Sunday's racing at Santa Anita brings two more West Coast preps for major Breeders' Cup races next month, but the Grade 1 labels on the side of the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship and Ancient Title Stakes should read something like this: "A win in this race does not guarantee squat come Breeders' Cup time, so enjoy it while you can."

The six-furlong Ancient Title began in 1985, a year after the Breeders' Cup was born, and has sent 17 of its fine winners to the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Three of them had the decency to win - Cardmania, Elmhurst, and Kona Gold - and Thor's Echo went from second in California to first on the big day. But 13 Ancient Title winners failed to hit the Breeders' Cup board, a sorrowful stat from a state known for its emphasis on speed.

Expectations for 10-furlong Hirsch winners are tempered by the fact that Europeans flood the gates for the Breeders' Cup Turf, leaving little room for hardworking Californians and New Yorkers.

Only eight winners of the Hirsch - formerly the Oak Tree Invitational and the Oak Tree Stakes, and until 1995 a 1 1/2-mile race - have come back in the BC Turf. Two of them, Kotashaan and Northern Spur, won. Two others, Great Communicator and Johar, finished second in their Oak Tree preps before taking the grand prize.

Rare as they are, West Coast winners of the Sprint and Turf are not necessarily tapping into a hometown advantage. It didn't hurt Cardmania, Elmhurst, Kotashaan and Johar, winners at either Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. Northern Spur, though, went on to handle the deep course at Belmont Park (the mile and a half was run in 2:42.07), and Kona Gold, Thor's Echo and Great Communicator won their Breeders' Cups at Churchill Downs.

Of those lining up for this version of the Hirsch, Rendezvous seems like one of those horses destined to spend his life under the radar. He began life as a 2-year-old maiden claimer in Florida, then moved to Northern California for new owners and was promptly relegated to second banana in the barn.

Later, after it was clear a Kentucky Derby was not in his future, Rendezvous tried New York grass without distinction or embarrassment. The subsequent Hill Prince might have been his chance to shine, but a storm swept Long Island on the eve of the Belmont Stakes, forcing the Hill Prince off the turf. Rendezvous might as well have stayed in the barn, for all the running he did.

Chapter 2 commenced on the Del Mar grass, over which he finished third in the Oceanside at a mile, second in the La Jolla at

1 1/16 miles, and then first in the nine-furlong Del Mar Derby by a nose so slim that runner-up Battle of Hastings still thinks he won. It was a beautiful progression of management and conditioning, reminiscent of Alphabet Soup's march of seven-, eight-, and nine-furlong events leading up to his narrow victory at 10 furlongs in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic. Sometimes, what looks good on paper actually comes true in the flesh.

Now trainer and part-owner Jerry Hollendorfer is tossing Rendezvous into the Hirsch Turf Championship against some salty old warriors, including Spring House, Artiste Royal and Presious Passion. Hollendorfer thinks the time is ripe.

"At this time of year, the 3-year-olds get three pounds, which could make a little difference," Hollendorfer said. "But I think they also catch up with the older horses this time of year, especially if they're doing good, like Rendezvous is.

"As the distances got longer at Del Mar this summer, he did a little better," he said. "So I'm thinking he can get the mile and a quarter. And certainly, his sire, Victory Gallop, was a horse who could get that distance."

The "other" 3-year-old in the Hollendorfer barn is the more accomplished Chocolate Candy, who was taking on his own field of older horses in the Goodwood Stakes on Saturday.

"I hate to compare horses, especially when they're running on different surfaces," Hollendorfer said. "We took Rendezvous on the road last spring with Chocolate Candy and some other horses, thinking there were races that fit him back East. He didn't have a great deal of success, but he did run really good in one pretty tough allowance race in New York. It was when he got to Del Mar that he seemed to get better and better."

As for the Ancient Title, the most accomplished sprinter in the field is the defending champ, Cost of Freedom. Normally, this would be as far as a player would need to look. But on the heels of his 2008 Ancient Title score, Cost of Freedom was scratched from last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint and did not reappear until last month at Del Mar, with a fourth-place finish in a minor event.

That alone makes the race grab bag, into which Richard Mandella has tossed the 3-year-old Crown of Thorns, winner of the Robert B. Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita last February before a shin injury knocked him off the Kentucky Derby trail. Crown of Thorns returned at Del Mar to finish third in a fast allowance race going 6 1/2 furlongs.

"I thought he should have won his comeback race," Mandella said. "He got in a little switch on the backside, had to kind of back up and come around, then finished up the last eighth of a mile with the look of a really good horse.

"I thought about being more conservative with him," Mandella added. "And I appealed to the Breeders' Cup to delay it a month, but I didn't get any answer. So I've thrown him in there Sunday to see if he can sink or swim."