12/22/2010 4:00PM

Return to dirt lures Derby hopefuls to Santa Anita

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Barbara D. Livingston
Astrology, winning the Iroquois on Oct. 31, is among trainer Steve Asmussen's Derby prospects at Santa Anita

ARCADIA, Calif. − A return to dirt racing at Santa Anita will have a profound effect on the West Coast’s major preps for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. For the first time since the winter of 2006-2007, horses will not have to leave this circuit in order to see if they can handle dirt. But the level of competition here has gotten a bit tougher, too, because the new dirt surface has lured the best Derby prospects of trainer Steve Asmussen, who has a string at Santa Anita that in years past would have been at Fair Grounds.

Asmussen is taking a serious shot this winter. He has entrusted his Santa Anita runners to his top assistant, Scott Blasi, who handled the day-to-day care of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, who together took the Horse of the Year title the last three years. Among those in Asmussen’s stable here are Astrology, the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27; and Tapizar, a 10 1/2-length winner against maidens just a half-hour later.

They join a group of locally based males headed by Comma to the Top, J P’s Gusto, and Clubhouse Ride − the first three finishers in the CashCall Futurity − and Jaycito, the Norfolk Stakes winner. All are pointing to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 9, a race whose purse was bumped to $1 million this year.

The major preps for the Santa Anita Derby are the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 12 and the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 12, both $250,000 races.

The local female prospects for the May 6 Kentucky Oaks are headed by Turbulent Descent, the unbeaten winner of the Hollywood Starlet. Her major objective here is the Grade 1, $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks on March 5.

Astrology had an ambitious 2-year-old campaign, highlighted by a victory Oct. 31 in the Iroquois Stakes.

“I think he’s got plenty of races in him,” Asmussen said via telephone from Laredo, Texas, where his family was having a holiday visit with his parents. “With the move out West, he’s getting a little break. He’ll run later in the meet.”

Tapizar, a son of Tapit out of a Deputy Minister mare, will be seen sooner, weather permitting.

“The weather is going to make us wait until after the first of the year,” Asmussen said. “I think he’s come on really well. I was very impressed with his last race. He’s a big, strong colt, with the perfect pedigree for what we want to do.”

Comma to the Top won his fifth straight race in last week’s CashCall Futurity. He has thrived on activity, so a race such as the Grade 3, $100,000 Sham Stakes on Jan. 15 might come up at an ideal time for him next month.

Jaycito won the Norfolk, then bolted on the first turn of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Since then, he has been transferred by owner Ahmed Zayat from trainer Mike Mitchell to Bob Baffert, who said Jaycito just came back into training after getting a month off.

“He might be ready by February,” Baffert said.

Baffert’s other top prospects include Sinai, who defeated maidens in his debut at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18, and The Factor, a highly regarded colt who was an abject disappointment when heavily bet in his debut.

Sinai is being pointed to the $75,000 San Pedro Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on Jan. 17. Baffert said he wants to sprint Sinai once more before stretching him out.

The Factor will attempt to make amends in a six-furlong race against maidens on opening day Sunday. That race also drew Asmussen’s first runner of the meet, the Rockport Harbor colt Houston Harbor, as well as Hope and Believe, a son of Forestry who has turned in a series of quick drills for his debut.

“He’s a nice colt, but he might have distance limitations,” said his trainer, Ron Ellis.

Indian Winter, who ran a deceptively good race in the Del Mar Futurity before going to the sidelines, is back working strongly for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

“He got body sore,” Hollendorfer said.

Eoin Harty’s best prospect is Anthony’s Cross, a son of Indian Charlie who defeated maidens at Churchill Downs. There is a one-mile allowance race Wednesday for which he is eligible.

Among the fillies, the main challenger to Turbulent Descent’s reign is likely to be Rigoletta, who won the Oak Leaf Stakes before going to the sidelines with a minor splint injury.

“She got two months off, but she should be fresh and ready to go in February or March,” said her trainer, Dan Hendricks.

Big Tiz, Tell a Kelly, and May Day Rose − second through fourth in the Starlet − are looking for a rematch with Turbulent Descent this winter.

Hollendorfer is eager to try the Malibu Moon filly Alec’s Moon on dirt following synthetic races at Golden Gate and Hollywood Park. She is scheduled to run in the Grade 3, $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes on Jan. 15.