03/17/2010 11:00PM

San Luis Rey has a touch of drama


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sue me if I still like the San Luis Rey. Maybe it's the mission. Maybe it's the bridge. Maybe it's the nearly six decades of history packed with horses like John Henry, Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle, Sandpit, Interco, Noble Dancer, Bien Bien, Perrault, and Kotashaan.

The race has been at a mile and a half on the grass since 1955. Once, in 1975, it was rained off the turf. It was a handicap for a long time then a stakes at level weights, then back to its present status as a handicap. Twenty years ago the San Luis Rey was worth twice as much and offered a Grade 1 credential. Now, with a purse of $150,000, it is clinging to its Grade 2 for dear life.

What the San Luis Rey badly needs is for one of its winners to leave the state and kick some you-know-what. Midships, last year's winner, looked like the real deal but went wrong before he could establish a national profile. Meteor Storm, who took the 2004 version, later won the Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park, then hit the sidelines. Recent winners such as Blueprint, Continental Red, Stanley Park, and Fourty Niner's Son never raised an eyebrow east of the Sierra Nevadas.

The most damning indictment of California's distance horses on the grass can be found in the fields for the last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Turf, both of them presented under ideal conditions on firm ground at Santa Anita, at the San Luis Rey route of 1 1/2 miles. Of the 11 who ran in 2008, only two were trained in California. And of the seven who showed up for the 2009 BC Turf - with seven stalls vacant in the gate - only lonely Monzante could be called a Californian. So much for taking advantage of the home-court advantage.

Enough grumbling. Time is better served in hopes that something emerges from Saturday's 59th running of the San Luis Rey of which the race can be proud. On the form, San Luis Obispo Handicap winner Bourbon Bay looks ripe to repeat, and it would be no surprise. When horses get good for Neil Drysdale, they tend to stay good. Attention will be paid, however, to High Court Drama, a 5-year-old son of Theatrical who is owned and was raced in Ireland by British businessman Christopher McHale and is now trained by Doug O'Neill.

California doesn't see too many Theatricals anymore, and High Court Drama is typical of the family. Theatrical himself made a considerable impact, finishing second in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita and then winning the Turf in 1987 at Hollywood Park.

"Like most Theatricals, there's a lot of horse there," O'Neill said. "He's a good-sized colt, real laid-back mentally. You've got to do a double-check under his hind legs so see if he is still a full horse. I think of him as a classy, hard-knocking, workmanlike horse who doesn't really do a lot of yelling around the barn."

High Court Drama made his American debut last November in an allowance race on the Hollywood Park turf. He won, at odds of 14-1, under the visiting Kieren Fallon, the champion rider whose travails in Europe have landed him, from time to time, in high court, under dramatic circumstances.

"We got a lot of laughs before the race, then we were wondering why we didn't bet the house on him afterwards," O'Neill said. "I at least had a few tickets, the typical O'Neill supporting-the-handle move."

High Court Drama came right back in the Native Diver Handicap on Hollywood's synthetic main track in December and turned in a sharp second to Mast Track. He was last seen finishing a heartbreaking second to Loup Breton in the San Marcos Handicap on the local grass, when he looked home and dry. The margin was a half-length, but the race served its purpose and showed O'Neill High Court Drama was the real deal.

His next goal was the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, at 10 furlongs on the synthetic main track, March 6. This made sense, since a lot of High Court Drama's racing in Ireland took place on Polytrack at Dundalk, and everything was going great - until the weights came out for the race, and High Court Drama was at the lower end of the list.

"Idiot me, I kept telling the McHales there were no worries, that he'd get in," said O'Neill. "The Big Cap very seldom overfills, and even if it did, the horse had to get in. Well, he didn't. This was the rare exception that a trainer should have done some politicking, telling the racing office how good I thought he was."

This, of course, is a psychological impossibility. Trainers are born to poor-mouth their horses when weights are involved, or at least remain stone silent. O'Neill knew that High Court Drama carried as much as 136 pounds in an Irish handicap, and that he had won comfortably under 120 in that first American allowance event. What was there to worry about?

"There were a lot of sour phone calls from me back to England," O'Neill said. "The McHales had bought nonrefundable tickets to fly out here, and they had a right not to be happy. But they were great sportsmen about it. They sucked it up and said, 'Okay, let's go get 'em in the San Luis Rey.' "