03/04/2011 4:51PM

San Felipe can be benchmark for Bench Points

Benoit & Associates
Bench Points makes it four in a row with a Santa Anita victory in February.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The trips to Kentucky racetracks during his years at the University of Indiana gave Chip Martin an introduction to horse racing in the early 1990s. If the atmosphere at Churchill Downs was not enough of a hook, there was always the camaraderie with friends.

When Martin, now 39, relocated to California and had professional success, he found himself in the same sporting circle as some members of the Southern California racing community through a golf club membership. Once again, he was lured to the game, this time as an owner.

Through claims and private acquisitions, Martin, with partners, has had starters for the last six years. This spring, it is possible he could be headed back to Churchill Downs with Bench Points, the California-bred champion 2-year-old of 2010.

The next six weeks will determine whether Bench Points, unbeaten in four starts in sprints, merits a start in such a race. The gelding makes his graded stakes debut in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on March 12, which could lead to a start in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

For Martin, running in such races is difficult to imagine.

“For me, it would be more than amazing,” Martin said. “The odds of us being involved in a horse like this is slim at best. It’s been a heck of a lot of fun. To run in the Santa Anita Derby would be amazing.”

Martin is part of an ownership team of Bench Points that includes Donnie Crevier, Linda Mariani, Mary Jo Zuraitis and Joanne Buss, a group formed last spring before Bench Points made his debut.

Through the spring and summer, the hopes of the partners, and trainer Tim Yakteen, soared after Bench Points won a maiden race for statebreds over five furlongs at Hollywood Park in June, and the Graduation Stakes over 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar in August.

“When we ran him the first time we knew he was a nice horse,” Yakteen said. “I thought we’d have some fun with him. When he won the Graduation, he overcame a lot of adversity. I started thinking we have a little more than an average horse.”

Such thoughts were confirmed when Bench Points won his second stakes of the Del Mar meeting in the I’m Smokin Stakes over six furlongs last September. Sent off as a heavy favorite, Bench Points was toward the back of the 10-horse field after a quarter-mile, having overcome a bumping incident that led to him losing a shoe. With a five-wide rally on the turn, Bench Points, closed four lengths in the final furlong to win by a half-length.

“He got bumped, squeezed and lost a shoe and he was still able to do it all on his own,” Martin recalls.

The chaos of the race took its toll, however. Bench Points emerged from the race with a bone chip in a knee that required surgery. He resumed workouts on Christmas Eve, a routine postponed at times because of wet weather in Southern California.

Bench Points made his 3-year-old debut in an optional claimer at Santa Anita on Feb. 11, his first start on a dirt track and first start against open company. Neither of those factors mattered in the end. Ridden for the first time by Alonso Quinonez, Bench Points rallied from last in a field of four to win the six-furlong race by 1 1/4 lengths.

The win gave the partners and Yakteen, 46, the confidence to try tougher races this spring.

“He’s done everything we asked him,” Martin said. “He could have been beaten last time out. Winning wasn’t the priority as much as getting him ready to go two-turns.”

The San Felipe field is expected to include Jaycito, the winner of the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes at Hollywood Park in October; and Comma to the Top, the winner of the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December. It will be a proper Kentucky Derby prep, which incites both caution and excitement for Yakteen.

“It will be a major test, without doubt,” Yakteen said last weekend. “It’s exciting, but I’ve been in this game long enough. I’m taking it step by step, but this is the dream. This is why we’re in the game.”

There are hints in Bench Points’s pedigree that he will be effective around two turns. Bred by former trainer Gary Rocks, who sold his portion of the horse before his debut, Bench Points is by Benchmark out of Mo Chuisle, who did not race.

Benchmark, by Alydar, won over 1 1/8 miles, and is the sire of Brother Derek, the winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Derby. Mo Chuisle’s sire, Free House, won the 1997 Santa Anita Derby over 1 1/8 miles, and the 1998 Pacific Classic and 1999 Santa Anita Handicap over 1 1/4 miles. The second dam, Visible Gold, won three stakes around two turns in the early 1990s.

“Pedigree-wise, he should be able to do it,” Yakteen said. “He’s got the mindset. He’s just push button.”

The partnership between Martin, a professional trustee who handles labor negotiations for trade unions, and Yakteen has drawn their respective families closer. Yakteen is godfather to Martin’s oldest son, Charlie, 2.

That has made the success of Bench Points all the more meaningful for Martin. As much as he enjoys racing, he has tried to do so on a budget, focusing on recent years on buying unraced 2-year-olds.

“The last two years all the horses I’ve owned have been 2-year-olds coming to the track, other than the claiming game,” he said. “I like to see the horse develop, getting the horse to the winner’s circle for the first time.

“This will be the best I’ll ever own.”