03/18/2009 11:00PM

San Luis Rey could be rockin' affair


ARCADIA, Calif. - Right now, between Derby Fever and March Madness, there's not much space left in the ER for even the slightest case of Turf Itch.

Grass racing takes a backseat on the long bus this time of year, despite the fact that the most exciting race of last weekend's stakes feast was arguably Proudinsky's successful defense of his Mervin Muniz title at the Fair Grounds. In addition, there are historically rich, bicoastal marathons on Saturday in the San Luis Rey at Santa Anita and the Pan American at Gulfstream Park. And then next Saturday, somewhere in a distant desert, four American-trained horses will run for five (gulp) million dollars in the Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters on the grass and five more million (sigh) in the Dubai Duty Free.

(To put those Dubai figures in perspective, $10 million is $2 million more than the entire Hollywood Park stakes schedule, and $3.6 million more than the top executive bonus paid out by AIG.)

Let's face it, though. Turf racing in North America is pretty much a sideshow until about August, when the Arlington Million finally offers enough international pizazz to generate a media pulse. From the Million onward, everything grassy is cranked backwards from the Breeders' Cup Turf and the Breeders' Cup Mile. Anything else is a distraction.

Still, the people who run the premier winter meets persist in holding onto the principle that grass horses deserve a season's worth of opportunities. Good for them. The San Luis Rey - won by the likes of John Henry, Perrault, Prized and Kotashaan - has attracted a field of seven, including the reliable Spring House and Artiste Royal. Bowl Game, Fraise, and Buck's Boy all bagged past Pan Americans, which this time matches McKnight and Mac Diarmida Handicap winner Presious Passion and Tropical Park Turf winner Spice Route.

If any of the 14 entered in the two races have higher aspirations, they so far have kept it a secret. But it's early, spring has just sprung, and there have been any number of years when the divisional leaders took their time to emerge.

On paper, You Got Me Rocking, the horse on the rail in the San Luis Rey, is a fully exposed, 5-year-old son of Aljabr who spent the first part of his career quietly losing most of his races in Kentucky. More often than not, though, he looked okay doing it, and when he popped up with a couple of good numbers last spring - including a victory the day before Oaks Day at Churchill Downs - people began to notice.

One of them was trainer Mike Mitchell, who brought You Got Me Rocking to the attention of Burt and Jane Bacharach. They were impressed enough - the name didn't hurt - so You Got Me Rocking came west and rewarded his new owners with a third-place finish in the Del Mar Handicap.

You Got Me Rocking has not replicated that effort in stakes company, but he arrives at the doorstep of the San Luis Rey on the heels of his best California effort, a 4 1/2-length win in a nine-furlong allowance race on Feb. 26. He led every step under Tyler Baze, which is what he'll try to do again on Saturday in his first try at 1 1/2 miles.

"I was really impressed with his last race," Burt Bacharach said this week. "I was particularly impressed the way he opened up even a little more in the stretch, and I was impressed we got a Beyer of 98. I think that means something."

It does, especially when the top 2009 numbers among the opposition are the 100s posted by Artiste Royal and Medici Code when they finished one-two in the San Gabriel last January, and by Spring House in the more recent San Luis Obispo. On the other hand, even alone on the pace is a tough place to be going 1 1/2 miles at Santa Anita. Horses coming down the hillside portion of the course in front tend to get on the engine, no matter what the timer says, and spend a little more early than they should.

Bacharach is encouraged, though, that Baze is at the wheel. The former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice began Thursday's card with 30 wins at the meet, good for sixth in the standings, and has a history of doing well aboard long-distance gray turf horses trained by Mitchell, primarily with Star Over the Bay, winner of the 2004 Sunset, Del Mar Handicap and Clement Hirsch Memorial at Oak Tree.

"I think Tyler's really matured," Bacharach said. "And I think he's really good on a front-runner, just like Mike seems really good with these older horses. I like the combination."

Nice of Bacharach to say that. He's used to the best. His first stakes winner, Advance Guard, was trained by Charlie Whittingham and ridden by Bill Shoemaker. Laffit Pincay was the regular rider of Bacharach's champion 3-year-old filly Heartlight No. One during the 1983 season, and in 1996, his stakes-winning colt Soul of the Matter, trained by Richard Mandella and ridden by Gary Stevens, came within a half-length of upsetting Cigar in the first Dubai World Cup.

Bacharach is still making music - hitting all the right notes and preparing for concert dates in Brazil then, this summer, through Europe. In between he will be recording an album of his music in London with a cast of British artists.

"Maybe at Abbey Road," Bacharach added. "That would be great."

With a San Luis Rey as an appetizer.