03/09/2011 1:13PM

Santa Anita Handicap controversy leaves Kilroe Mile in shadows


For those who like their racing entertainment leaning in the direction of food fights and “Dukes of Hazzard” reruns, the Santa Anita Handicap of last Saturday was made to order. It had everything but a guy in armor hitting Richard Mandella over the head with a rubber chicken.

Too bad, then, that the mosh pit moment provided by Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko served to wipe quickly from memory one of those gorgeous racing displays, wherein horses and jockeys rise to the occasion and leave the stage aglow. That was the Kilroe Mile.

As has been the case since the Breeders’ Cup came along with the multi-feature format, very good races on big days become marginalized. The Kilroe could have thrived as a stand-alone event, but falling beneath the shadow of the Santa Anita Handicap – run just as the handicap horses were walking through the paddock for their race – its chances for proper recognition were poor going in. Then, when the handicap’s tumultuous climax and lengthy inquiry sucked the air out of the room, the Kilroe was all but forgotten.

That is a shame. Turf milers are prized the world over. Classics are run at the distance. The best are cherished as stallions. One of the bedrock Breeders’ Cup races even glorified their status from the moment the series began. Last Sunday morning, instead of railing over the handicap outcome and comparing the three Santa Anita stewards to the Kardashian sisters, the word around town should have been, “What a Kilroe!”

Milers are cool, and two of the coolest are Fluke and Caracortado. It takes some head-scratching to recall when either horse last ran a bad race. In Caracortado’s case, it was the 2010 Preakness, when his people still were flirting with the idea they had a classic 3-year-old on their hands (a common enough affliction). As for Fluke, now 6, he came to fruition for the late Bobby Frankel during the summer of 2009 and has been as reliable as the dawn ever since.

The Kilroe was nobody’s race on paper. And, as with all two-turn miles over seven-furlong courses, luck figured to play a role. Fluke and Rafael Bejarano got the ideal trip along the rail, while Caracortado and Joe Talamo – who had been riding Fluke as well – had to be more creative. But after knifing cleanly through the field around the turn and splitting Time Goes By and Jeranimo, they had dead aim on Fluke in the final furlong. The margin was a head in Fluke’s favor.

“He maybe got a little better trip,” said Humberto Ascanio, Fluke’s trainer. “And Caracortado is a very nice horse. But when he came to my horse at the end, I don’t think he was going to get by. My horse galloped out strong, too.”

As Frankel’s longtime assistant – as well as being the public face of the Frankel California operation – Ascanio is a figure of near universal respect. After Frankel’s death in November 2009, Ascanio tried to make the most of the handful of horses that were left in his care, Fluke being one of them for owner Patricia Bozano.

“Before he died, Bobby told me this horse had gotten very good in New York that summer,” Ascanio said. “He told me to take good care of him and that I should go ahead and run him in the Citation, that he would run big.”

So he did, less than two weeks after Frankel’s death, in a classic Frankel pattern. Having won an allowance race at Belmont in September of that year, Fluke was making his first start in more than two months in Hollywood’s Citation. He won by 1 1/4 lengths.

Ascanio ended up with a pared-down stable that evoked the Frankel days in spirit only, and did not win a race in 2010. Fluke, though, remained stalwart, finishing second in the 2010 Kilroe and second in the Arcadia, over the same course and distance. After a break, Fluke returned last fall for another second-place finish in a Hollywood Park allowance, a race that set the table for victories this year in the Thunder Road and now the Kilroe.

“He’s always been a tough horse in the morning,” Ascanio said. “You’ve got to be careful with him or he could run off. You know me, I don’t like to work horses fast. But he could go five-eighths in 58 or three-quarters in 11 easy, if you let him. I was a little concerned about giving him just the two works before this race. Then I thought about it, and for him, the way he gallops, that was enough.”

He might have a future, this Ascanio fellow. Humberto just laughed.

“Give me a break,” he said. “When you got good horses with talent like this one, all you got to do is take good care of them. That’s what Bobby always said – no cutting corners, always take your horses first class.”

Even so, in the wake of Fluke’s win on Saturday, Ascanio was a little surprised at the reaction. Justin Bieber he’s not.

“I know the people on the backstretch know who I am,” he said. “But I had people in the stands stopping me to congratulate me and take pictures. It was nice, but kind of crazy.”

It was suggested to Ascanio that maybe, just maybe, it was the fans’ way of reaching out for a little piece of Frankel’s memory, as embodied by the man recognized as his closest aide. Ascanio was quick to quash such an idea.

“No, no, no,” he said. “There was only one Bobby.”