03/06/2012 2:02PM

Santa Anita: Blingo adding focus to his ability, returns in San Felipe

Shigeki Kikkawa
Blingo hasn’t started since a sixth-place finish under jockey Mike Smith in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The problem with Blingo last fall was never an issue of ability.

He won his career debut in a one-mile turf race at Hollywood Park on Thanksgiving weekend and finished a fast-closing sixth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity in December, his only other start.

But he was something of a goofball, trainer John Shirreffs says, tough to train.

“He’s a gelding for a reason,” Shirreffs said last weekend.

The talented Blingo is on the Triple Crown trail for a reason, too.

Blingo makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Grade 2 San Felipe is a key prep for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.

If Blingo makes it to the Santa Anita Derby, he will merit significant respect, considering the success that Shirreffs and Blingo’s owners – Jerry and Ann Moss – have had in the past.

In 2005, Giacomo was second in the San Felipe, fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, and pulled an upset win in the Kentucky Derby. Two years later, Tiago won the Santa Anita Derby and was seventh in the Kentucky Derby. He later won three more stakes.

Saturday’s San Felipe is the third graded stakes around two turns for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita this year. Shirreffs says waiting for the San Felipe has been worthwhile with Blingo.

After a troubled sixth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity on Dec. 17, Blingo stayed in training through the early winter with Shirreffs at Hollywood Park. Since the start of the year, Shirreffs says that Blingo has changed, showing maturity and reacting to training lessons.

“He’s very sharp,” Shirreffs said. “He’s gotten a little more focused. Like a lot of young horses, he needed to focus, so we worked on that. He never stopped training.”

Beginning in mid-January, Blingo resumed workouts, often recording quick times. In his first two starts, Blingo closed from the back of the field. His recent works, including six furlongs in 1:12 at Hollywood Park last Saturday under jockey Mike Smith, suggest that he will be more of a stalker than a closer as a 3-year-old.

“He’s a talented, aggressive horse,” Shirreffs said. “We’ve been working for Mike to put him where we want him.”

Blingo will need a strong effort to be a factor in the San Felipe. Even with the early week loss of Sham Stakes winner Out of Bounds to injury, the list of probable starters includes the stakes winners Creative Cause, Liaison, and Rousing Sermon, the stakes-placed Empire Way, and the impressive maiden race winner Fed Biz.

Blingo was purchased for $80,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale. By Artie Schiller, Blingo underwent his early training with Jeanne Mayberry in Florida. He had already been gelded at that stage of his career, Shirreffs said.

“He had to spend a lot of time at the farm getting things sorted out,” Shirreffs said.

For years, the Mosses have turned to Mayberry to prepare their 2-year-olds for the racetrack. Mayberry had 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta before she joined Shirreffs’s stable way back in 2006.

At the time, Shirreffs was better known as Giacomo’s trainer and not the man who would guide Zenyatta to victories in her first 19 starts.

How far Blingo can progress this spring may be determined Saturday.

Last year, Shirreffs’s best 3-year-old prospect was Mr. Commons, who finished third in the Santa Anita Derby and eighth in the Preakness Stakes for owner Ian Banwell. Switched to turf last summer, Mr. Commons has since won three stakes on that surface.

Blingo needs prize money in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby. A turf career is a back-up plan for Blingo.

“At this time of year, you hope you can earn enough to go to Kentucky,” Shirreffs said of Blingo. “But if that didn’t work out, we’ll do what we did with Mr. Commons.”

Saturday’s San Felipe will provide clues as to which path Blingo will take.

“It will be a big test for him,” Shirreffs said.