01/29/2013 1:56PM

Santa Anita: Arcadia represents a new starting point for Strong Suit

Tom Keyser
Strong Suit, shown before running 10th in the BC Mile in 2011, won group races at 2 and 3 in England.

ARCADIA, Calif. – A 5-year-old Arkansas-bred who has lost his last six races may be the horse to follow in California’s top turf miles this year.

Strong Suit was winless in five stakes in England last year, and finished 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in 2011, but the way he is training and his four group stakes wins in England as a 2- and 3-year-old in 2010 and 2011 has new trainer Simon Callaghan confident that the horse can play a key role on turf in the United States this season.

“Every bit of work he’s doing is impressive,” Callaghan said Sunday. “He’s adapted very quickly. You’d think he’d trained here his whole life.”

The objective for 2013 is to make Strong Suit a Grade 1 winner for owner Sheikh Fahad Al Thani’s Qatar Racing. That could happen before the end of the winter. Strong Suit makes his first start for Callaghan in Saturday’s Grade 2, $150,000 Arcadia Stakes over a mile on turf at Santa Anita, a prep for the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile, a Grade 1 turf race here on March 2.

“He’s works like a Grade 1 horse, for sure,” Callaghan said.

A winner of 5 of 15 starts and $524,472 for English trainer Richard Hannon, Strong Suit had his best season in 2011, winning 3 of 6 starts and $332,394. He won consecutive Group 2 races over seven furlongs that year – the Lennox Stakes at Goodwood and the Challenge Stakes at Newmarket – before the disappointing performance at 7-1 in the BC Mile.

The BC Mile is one of seven losses in Group 1 or Grade 1 races for Strong Suit, including a second, beaten nine lengths, in the Middle Park Stakes in England in 2010; a third, by a head, in the Prix Jean Prat in France in 2011; and a 10th behind the unbeaten superstar Frankel in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot last June.

The Queen Anne Stakes was Strong Suit’s first start of 2012, a season during which little went right.

“Last season, the ground went against him,” Callaghan said. “They tried him at different distances and the season did not work out for him with the wet weather they had in England.”

Strong Suit will prefer firm ground, said Callaghan, a native of England. Strong Suit’s five wins have come on good or good-to-firm turf. Last August, Strong Suit was second by a neck in the Group 2 Hungerford Stakes at Newbury on good-to-firm turf, his best race of the year. He has not raced since finishing fourth in a Group 2 race at Doncaster in September.

In the Arcadia Stakes, Strong Suit will be ridden by Jamie Spencer, who signed a contract last fall to ride first call for Sheikh Fahad.

Spencer, 32, will be based in England, but could make several appearances in the United States to partner Strong Suit. Waiting on the sidelines if Spencer is unavailable is Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who worked Strong Suit in December and said the horse left him impressed by his acceleration.

Spencer will ribe aboardde Strong Suit during training hours on Friday.

“He’s galloping him on Friday morning to get a feel of the horse,” Callaghan said. “He’s ridden against him a few times, I’m sure. He’s watched the replays. He’s done his homework.”

Strong Suit was purchased for $27,000 as a weanling at Keeneland in November 2008. Strong Suit is by Rahy, and his American-oriented bloodlines could lead to a surface switch as an experiment this year.

“Being by Rahy, we’re not discounting that he may run on the main track,” Callaghan said. “The way he works over it you wouldn’t be afraid to run him.”

Strong Suit is one of three horses that Callaghan has for Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing. A small group of 2-year-olds is expected to join the stable in coming months.

Sheikh Fahad won the 2011 Melbourne Cup with Dunaden, and has about 80 runners worldwide, including horses with Maryland-based Graham Motion.

Strong Suit’s presence in California represents a shift for Sheikh Fahad, and could lead to a wider presence in this country for the growing stable. Along with his brothers, all nephews of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Fahad has developed a lucrative sponsorship program of Britain’s leading flat races.

“They’re getting into the American scene now,” Callaghan said.

A big season by Strong Suit could add to that involvement.