10/05/2008 12:00AM

Romance Is Diane seeks bigger prize


ARCADIA, Calif. - The $1.3 million California Cup program Sunday at Santa Anita shaped up as a predictably unobtrusive gala for California-breds until trainer Bill Morey Jr. turned the day inside out.

By entering last year's California Cup Classic winner Bold Chieftain in the $175,000 Cal Cup Mile on grass, instead of the $250,000 Classic on synthetic, Morey set off a domino effect that rippled through the entire eight-stakes, 11-race card restricted to statebreds.

Due to the switch, Romance Is Diane will not defend her 2007 victory in the $150,000 Matron for fillies and mares. Instead, she becomes the first filly to run in the Classic, which is the final start of her career. Bold Chieftain's defection was merely one reason to take a shot, said Romance Is Diane's trainer, Mike Mitchell.

"It boiled down to $150,000 vs. $250,000, it boiled down to 121 pounds or 115, and it boiled down to who didn't go in the Classic," Mitchell said.

Romance Is Diane was not the only horse to switch. Doug O'Neill, trainer of turf runner Mr. Chairman, said the Classic was simply the easier spot.

"We wanted to dodge Bold Chieftain," O'Neill said. "We were watching his move."

As for Morey, he pleads selfish innocence. Bold Chieftain may be the best horse on the card, and the Classic may be the richest race, but Morey wants Bold Chieftain to race for as long as possible. A 5-year-old, he has won 11 races and $793,327 from 21 starts.

"I'm hoping by running on grass, it's going to lengthen his career," Morey said. "He comes out of his grass races physically and mentally better than synthetic."

The defection of last year's winner leaves a modest field of eight in the 1 1/8-mile Classic, race 10 on the 11-race card. First post is noon, followed by a cross-section of stakes.

Race 3 is the Matron, a 1 1/16-mile stakes featuring Bai and Bai; race 4 is the $100,000 Distance Handicap, a 1 1/4-mile turf race for fillies and mares with Distant Victory the chalk.

Race 6 is the $125,000 Juvenile Fillies at a 1 1/16 miles in which Saucey Evening and Ten Churros are the favorites; race 7 is Bold Chieftain's turn in the $175,000 Mile.

Race 8 is the $150,000 Sprint; the pace scenario disfavors Grade 1 winner Johnny Eves and Grade 3 winner High Standards. Race 9 is the $150,000 Distaff, a turf sprint in which Tutta Bella will try to race gate to wire. And race 11 is the $125,000 Juvenile, where Escalon meets sprint stakes winners Babs Moossa and Triumphant Flight at a 1 1/16 miles.

The centerpiece race is the 1 1/8-mile Classic, race 10, and the question for the Mitchell-trained Romance Is Diane is simple: What is she doing here instead of the Matron, which she crushed last year?

"She is training super, and it is the same pattern I took with her last year," Mitchell said, regarding the layoff and workouts that preceded her 6 1/4-length Matron blowout. "If she gives me that race, which I think she can, she can win."

Romance Is Diane, a Grade 1 winner with 5 wins from 15 starts, will be sold next month at Keeneland. Mitchell expects Romance Is Diane to set the pace under Rafael Bejarano.

Speed, however, is not necessarily an attribute on Pro-Ride.

"It doesn't seem like you want to come from way out of it, but it doesn't seem like you want to be on the lead, either," Mitchell said. Through Thursday, only one of 11 main-track routes had been won wire to wire.

O'Neill-trained Mr. Chairman is the "now" horse, but surface is the question.

"The conservative move was to keep him on grass, but it seems the better opportunity was the main-track Classic," O'Neill said. "For Cal Cup Classic standards, it came up a little bit light."

In fact, the field for the Classic is one of the weakest in the history of the race. And it is one reason why the 3-for-33 veteran Add Heat has a chance. "He's a check collector," trainer Barry Abrams said. "Every race he's 1-2-3-4-5."

Add Heat is one of 15 on the Cal Cup card sired by leading California sire Unusual Heat. The sire is represented in nine of the 11 races, missing races 1 and 8. Abrams, who was instrumental in establishing Unusual Heat as a top stallion, reflected on the success.

"The thing I'm most proud of is Unusual Heats run as 2-year-olds, and they are still around three, four, and five years later," Abrams said. He starts nine on the Cal Cup card, and said his best chance is race 11 longshot Mensa Heat, a 2-year-old colt by Unusual Heat.

Other starters in the Cal Cup Classic include South Coast, Top This and That, Top Emblem, and One Chin Again.