04/07/2011 6:29PM

Santa Anita Derby an animal of its own

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For those keeping score at home, it has been 22 years since the winner of the Santa Anita Derby went on to win the Kentucky Derby as well.

Such a stark stat compares unfavorably to the Wood Memorial, a race won by Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, or the Arkansas Derby, taken by Derby winner Smarty Jones in 2004, or the Florida Derby, won by three Derby winners – Monarchos, Barbaro and Big Brown – in the past decade alone.

Even the Blue Grass, once a great race now marginalized bywith less impact now because of its Polytrack playing field, boasts a more recent Derby winner than Santa Anita. That would be Strike the Gold, way back in 1991 when expectations were high for any colt who came out of Keeneland on a roll.

But 22 years? Can’t call that a drought or soft-peddle it as a trend. Twenty-two years is a banishment, a dry hole, an historical fact so rank that there rightfully should be warning signs posted at the entry box.

Since the freakish Sunday Silence was the last Santa Anita Derby winner to wear Kentucky’s rose garland, it could be argued without breaking too much of a sweat that there hasn’t been a 3-year-old like him come along in any of those 21 subsequent runnings, talented enough to win both races. There is still a YouTube video floating around of Sunday Silence winning at Santa Anita on that bygone April afternoon, when 52,806 packed the park and bore witness to the full force of his jaw-dropping 11-length victory. Now that’s how you go to Kentucky.

The sharpies, however, will point out that no fewer than four colts beaten in the Santa Anita Derby since 1989 went on to win at Churchill Downs – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and Giacomo – but that doesn’t do too much to polish the image of the West’s best race for 3-year-olds. Who wants to be known around the business as nothing more than a stepping-stone?

In the 21 runnings before Sunday Silence’s Santa Anita Derby score, there were two colts and a filly who did California proud in Louisville after taking Santa Anita’s prize, and a nickel if you can name them. Too late. Somebody already rang in with Majestic Prince, Affirmed, and Winning Colors. All three are in the Hall of Fame.

The others on the short list are Lucky Debonair, Swaps, Determine, and Hill Gail – winners in both California and Kentucky – while such vaunted Santa Anita Derby winners as Silky Sullivan, Candy Spots, Hill Rise, Sham, Flying Paster, and Snow Chief ran aground in Kentucky.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Snow Chief’s Santa Anita Derby score. The fact that he was swamped by the speed in Kentucky was forgiven in the light of his subsequent victories in the Preakness and the Jersey Derby and his Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old of 1986. California-bred through and through, the old boy made it to age 27 before passing on in May of 2010 at Eagle Oak Ranch near the central coastal town of Paso Robles.

So let’s be realistic. Santa Anita Derby winners simply do not win Kentucky Derbies anymore (although you could have convinced Bob and Barbara Walter otherwise when their Cavonnier lost the big one by a lip in 1996). If that is true, then the Santa Anita Derby must be treasured as an end in itself, offering a million-dollar purse that should inspire any owner, trainer or jockey to forget for the moment that another Derby lies just down the road.

It would be a good idea to prepare for any sort of outcome from the field assembling at Santa Anita on Saturday. The only one among the 11 to have won more than a single graded stakes around two turns is Comma to the Top, and his came on turf and synthetic.

Bench Points, a son of the Alydar stallion Benchmark, sire of Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek, won his first four races, all sprints, before finishing a distant third to Premier Pegasus in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 12. Tim Yakteen, his trainer, refused to blame the horse.

“Even being his first race around two turns, I realize it wasn’t anywhere near the quality of his earlier efforts,” said Yakteen, who learned the ropes from Bob Baffert and Charlie Whittingham. “I’m going to write it off to my training showing up that day.”

Such sentiments are kind but can be expensive if indulged for too long. Owners and trainers walk a strange psychological tightrope this time of year with 3-year-olds of potential. The idea of a Kentucky Derby is heady stuff for owners Chip Martin, Donnie Crevier, Linda Mariani, Mary Jo Zuraitis, and Joanne Buss.

“If you’re even thinking about the Derby, you know you must have a very talented horse, and you want to give him every opportunity to display that talent,” Yakteen noted. “At the same time you have to be mindful of the fact that they all can’t go to the Derby, and there’s a lot of money to be running for down the line.”

Besides Alydar’s hot blood on top – Bench Points was gelded as an aggressive yearling who loved nothing better than to nip the legs of his fellow colts in the Oregon field where he was raised – he is out of a mare by Free House, who won the most exciting Santa Anita Derby in the last 20 years when he defeated Silver Charm in the 1997 running. Thoroughly proven in two-turn combat, Free House went on to be third to Silver Charm at Churchill Downs.

“There are a lot of other horses in the field Saturday in the same boat as us, on the brink of proving worthy to go to Kentucky,” Yakteen noted. “It’s hard not to think about it, but it is very exciting. One thing’s for sure – our little horse will show up with the best effort in him. He‘s never done anything else.”