09/28/2009 11:00PM

Opening the door to the Cup

Barbara D. Livingston
Santa Anita will be the site of the Breeders' Cup for the second straight year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The autumn racing season starts Wednesday with a simple objective for millionaire comebacker Desert Code and every other horse running in nine graded stakes over the first two weeks - finish with run, looking for more.

And if Desert Code should pop up and win the Grade 3 Morvich Handicap, consider it a bonus. "I'm hoping he finishes strong. I'm hoping he comes running," trainer David Hofmans said. "I don't really care where he finishes. I just hope he comes running."


The comment reflects the essence of Breeders' Cup prep season. Neither the Morvich nor any of the early stakes are must-win races. But the 14-race Breeders' Cup is just around the corner on Nov. 6-7, at Santa Anita for the second straight year, and everything that happens the first two weeks will affect the two biggest days of the year.

Desert Code, the defending BC Turf Sprint winner, returns from a five-month layoff on his favorite turf course in the 6 1/2-furlong Morvich. And he is not the only horse seeking to regain form this fall. That group includes none other than the Kentucky Derby winner, who is training at Santa Anita and scheduled to race twice at the Oak Tree meet.

Mine That Bird and trainer Chip Woolley arrived in California last weekend. The 3-year-old was scheduled for his first Santa Anita breeze Tuesday morning and will tackle older horses Oct. 10 in the Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes. It will be his first start since Aug. 1. Mine That Bird does not have to win first start back.

"He's not a hard horse to train - he'll be ready to run," Woolley said Sunday at Clocker's Corner while watching Mine That Bird gallop over the track. The comeback is merely a means to an end. Woolley wants Mine that Bird to peak Nov. 7 in the $5 million BC Classic. As for the intentions coming into the Goodwood, Woolley said, "It's got to be a plus for him to get the out."

Nine graded stakes the first two weeks include four on grass, five on Pro-Ride. And while the races may alleviate footing concerns, distance will pose the biggest challenge Sunday in two Grade 1's when 2-year-old-olds stretch to 1 1/16 miles. The unbeaten colt Lookin at Lucky is the Norfolk Stakes favorite, while Grade 1 winner Mi Sueno enters the Oak Leaf Stakes as precarious leader of the filly division.

Zenyatta puts her unbeaten record on the line Oct. 10 in Grade 1 Lady's Secret, followed by a Breeders' Cup race. Zensational, a three-time Grade 1 winner, will train up to the BC Sprint. Magical Fantasy, the top turf female in California, runs Oct. 10 in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon, followed by the BC Filly and Mare Turf.

Bob Baffert and John Sadler enter fall well positioned. Baffert trains established Grade 1 winners Lookin at Lucky and Zensational, as well as Pacific Classic winner-Goodwood candidate Richard's Kid, and likely Oak Leaf starter Always a Princess.

Sadler also is loaded with Breeders' Cup prospects. Noble Court was nominated to the Morvich but will train up to the BC Turf Sprint. Debut winner Dave in Dixie runs in the Norfolk, and maiden winner Pure Class will be among the Oak Leaf favorites. Whatsthescript goes in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile on Oct. 10, and sprinter Cost of Freedom is ticketed for the Grade 1 Ancient Title on Oct. 11.

"It's exciting, we've got a lot of horses with good shots," Sadler said. He acknowledges much can change over the next month. "If we're going to make a splash at the Breeders' Cup, we need them all to run well [in the preps], and go forward."

Sadler starts veteran Get Funky in the opening-day Morvich, but the key to the race is Brian Koriner-trained California Flag. The front-running sprinter won the 2008 Morvich before he was cooked on a hot pace in the BC Turf Sprint. California Flag should control the pace in the Morvich, and may be tough to catch.

Desert Code is problematic for handicappers. The Morvich is only a prep, but Hofmans also said Desert Code is "farther along" than he was last fall and he loves the course (he is 5 for 8 down the hill). Desert Code went off form in spring, and was freshened.

"He just tailed off, so we backed off," Hofmans said. "He didn't have any real issues, we just backed off. I just hope he's tight enough."

The field for the Morvich also includes upset candidate Cherokee Heaven, shipper Perfect Officer, Stoneside, Tiz West, Flashmans Papers, Tenga Cat, and Bruce's Dream.

While the Breeders' Cup dominates the fall season, Oak Tree also hosts the annual California Cup program. The 20th California Cup, a 10-race series for California-breds with purses totaling $1 million, is scheduled for Saturday. Grazen is expected to start favored in the $200,000 California Cup Classic.