11/06/2009 1:00AM

Plenty willing to challenge California Flag

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Flag, breezing last Sunday with Colleen Hartford, is proven on the downhill turf course after winning the Morvich twice.

ARCADIA, Calif. - California Flag is as fast as they come, but he was pretty slow to scare anyone out of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

"If California Flag is the favorite," said John Sadler, who will send out two starters Saturday in the $1 million BC Turf Sprint at Santa Anita, "then I know I fit."

This certainly is not meant as a dig at California Flag, who is listed as the 7-2 favorite for the Turf Sprint off a sharp victory in a local prep, the Morvich Handicap. But last year California Flag entered the inaugural Turf Sprint off a win in the Morvich, and a 36-1 shot named Desert Code upset the race after a wicked early pace melted California Flag.

Rival horsemen such as Sadler are looking for a similarly chaotic scenario to throw things wide open Saturday in the Turf Sprint, a 6 1/2-furlong race down the hill. Familiarity hasn't necessarily bred contempt for a lukewarm favorite, but the large field speaks for itself. In all, 16 horses are on the program, although only as many as 14 can start. Eleven of the 16 can be fairly considered Southern California-based horses.

"You really want a horse that runs seven-eighths of a mile," said Sadler, who will saddle Noble Court and Get Funky. "My rule of thumb for down the hill is if they've run well over it before, form usually holds up. And both of my horses have run well over it."

Desert Code, trained by David Hofmans and to be ridden again by Richard Migliore, is part of the sizable local contingent. "I was able to train my horse more this summer than I did last year, so in that respect we're ahead of the game," said Hofmans.

Other locally based starters with solid credentials include Lord Shanakill, Square Eddie, and Delta Storm.

Lord Shanakill, a Kentucky-bred 3-year-old, has raced exclusively overseas but has been in training here with Richard Mandella since early September.

The out-of-towners are led by Diamondrella, a 5-year-old mare entered off a victory in the Grade 1 First Lady, a one-mile race four weeks ago on the Keeneland turf. Based in New York with trainer Angel Penna Jr., Diamondrella has won 7 of her last 8 starts and is listed as a close second choice on the morning line at 4-1.

Diamondrella is one of three female runners in the lineup, along with Canadian Ballet, a turf-sprint specialist who figures to challenge California Flag for the early lead, and Gotta Have Her, a late-running local.

A pair of tractable New York-bred invaders also figure into the mix. Cannonball, a well-traveled gelding trained by Wesley Ward, narrowly defeated Silver Timber, the eventual winner of the Woodford at Keeneland, on the final weekend of the Saratoga meet. Both could be in a prime stalking position once the Turf Sprint field crosses the main track and squares up for home.

"I'm going to win it," said Ward. "This horse is sitting on the race of his life."

Meanwhile, trainer Brian Koriner got a scare during Wednesday morning training hours when California Flag dumped exercise rider Colleen Hartford near the wire and sped down the homestretch the wrong way. Neither horse nor rider was injured.

"He's over here kicking things down at the barn, acting like an idiot," Koriner said minutes afterward. "I've been taking it so easy with him, breezing him so slow, I guess he couldn't help himself. He kind of teased himself, blowing out like he did."

In other late developments, Strike the Deal, the lone European entrant in the race, was withheld from training Wednesday. "He's had a slight hiccup," said trainer Jeremy Noseda, declining to further elaborate. "We'll know something more within 24 hours."

The first also-eligible, Tenga Cat, was entered Thursday in a Santa Anita turf allowance, but trainer Ron Ellis said he would scratch to run instead in the Turf Sprint if given ample notice. Scratch time for the Saturday card was set for 7 a..m. Pacific on Friday.