Updated on 03/04/2012 1:15AM

Santa Anita Handicap: Ultimate Eagle hardly a longshot anymore

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Ultimate Eagle has three graded stakes victories to his credit, most recently the 1 1/8-mile Strub on dirt.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Ultimate Eagle was largely ignored by bettors as he amassed three graded stakes wins from mid-October to early February, going off at 34-1, 14-1, and 7-1 in those races.

Those days are long gone.

When Ultimate Eagle starts as the 120-pound highweight in Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, Ultimate Eagle will be the favorite to win the richest and most prestigious race of his career. Getting to these kind of races, a Grade 1 over 1 1/4 miles, is what owner B.J. Wright and trainer Mike Pender envisioned all along for the 4-year-old colt.

:: LIVE VIDEO: Watch the Santa Anita Handicap day card LIVE on DRF.com

“Obviously, he hasn’t exceeded our expectations,” Pender said on Thursday. “We always felt that he was of this caliber. Now we have a chance to show it on the biggest stage.”

The Santa Anita Handicap is the 11th and final race on a program that begins at noon. There are three Grade 1 races on the program, the final three races. The ninth race is the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies over a mile. The 10th race is the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf.

Ultimate Eagle is part of a field of 13. The race lost its 123-pound topweight on Wednesday when trainer Bob Baffert opted to point defending champion Game On Dude to the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the Middle East on March 31. In his absence, the Big Cap is a more competitive race.

Ultimate Eagle will be the target. By Mizzen Mast, Ultimate Eagle will set the pace from post 2, and is capable of leading to the wire. “He’s got the gate speed of a Quarter Horse and the staying power of a marathoner,” Pender said. “He dictates to us what he’ll do.”

The mount of Martin Pedroza, 46, Ultimate Eagle won the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby and Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf last fall from the front. In his first start on a dirt track, Ultimate Eagle won the Grade 2 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds over 1 1/8 miles by 7 1/4 lengths as a 7-1 shot. He led throughout that race.

The Big Cap will be his first start over 1 1/4 miles on a dirt track and first stakes appearance outside his age group. “He will get the distance from a conditioning standpoint,” Pender said. “I tried to pay attention to the gallops and less to the workouts. He’s galloping stronger than ever.”

Ultimate Eagle and Game On Dude have the same style, but without Game On Dude in the field it is less clear how taxing the pace will be on the favorite. The longshot Fiddlers Afleet can lead, but he is unproven at this level.

The main threats to Ultimate Eagle are Setsuko, second by a nose in the 2011 Big Cap; Gladding, the winner of the 2011 San Antonio Stakes; and Uh Oh Bango, second to Game On Dude in the San Antonio Stakes last month.

Setsuko, 5, has yet to win a stakes in 17 starts, and was gelded last summer. Trained by Richard Mandella, Setsuko returned from a five-month layoff to win an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles by 2 1/4 lengths over Fiddlers Afleet on Feb. 4. Setsuko is best as a stalker.

Mandella, seeking his fourth career Big Cap win, says Setsuko is more focused on racing and expects further progress. “There’s nothing I could change to this point,” Mandella said. “He looked like the real thing the other day. His works have been that way. It all looks good.”

Gladding, trained by John Sadler, was 10th in the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap after a troubled trip. He was later second in the Grade 3 Texas Mile in April and fourth, as the 5-2 favorite, in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs last November.

Sadler described the Big Cap as “pretty wide open” without Game On Dude in the field. Leading rider Joel Rosario will ride Gladding for the first time on Saturday.

“We’re glad to be in there,” Sadler said. “He’s a graded stakes winner on this track. He runs well fresh. He’s had some nice, nice works.”

Sadler was encouraged by Gladding’s one-mile workout in 1:36.60 on Feb. 25.

Uh Oh Bango, who drew the rail, will be ridden by Mike Smith. Both Smith and trainer Kory Owens are seeking their first wins in the Big Cap. Smith is winless with seven mounts, while Owens is having his first starter.

Uh Oh Bango, 5, will have his first start over 1 1/4 miles in the Big Cap. “I think it’s going to take a lot of racing luck,” Owens said of winning. “Things will have to fall into place. I’d like to be in the top three.

Recent Santa Anita Handicap winners

Year Horse Beyer
2011 Game On Dude 100
2010 Misremembered 104
2009 Einstein 103
2008 Heatseeker 110
2007 Lava Man 109

Average winning Beyer: 112.68

Highest winning Beyer: Best Pal, 123 (1992)

Lowest winning Beyer: Game On Dude, 100 (2011)

Santa Anita H. (G1), Post Time: 5:38 PT Saturday

Purse: $750,000; 1 1/4 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

ML Odds

1

Uh Oh Bango

R. Owens

M. Smith

6-1

1

Ultimate Eagle

M. Pender

M. Pedroza

5-2

1

Ron The Greek

W. Mott

J. Lezcano

6-1

1

Boxeur des Rues

D. O'Neill

M. Gutierrez

50-1

1

Thirtyfirststreet

D. O'Neill

E. Flores

30-1

1

Twice The Appeal

J. Bonde

C. Santiago Reyes

30-1

1

Fiddlers Afleet

P. Eurton

K. Krigger

50-1

1

Gladding

J. Sadler

J. Rosario

12-1

1

Setsuko

R. Mandella

V. Espinoza

4-1

1

Norvsky

D. Warren

J. Talamo

6-1

1

Prayer for Relief

B. Baffert

M. Garcia

8-1

1

Holladay Road

J. Canani

R. Bejarano

8-1

1

Victory Pete

A. Barba

C. Nakatani

50-1

TurfChatter More than 1 year ago
Nice to see a Big Field. Lets see how the Eagle does now that he is the one being hunted rather than the hunter!
David Craighead More than 1 year ago
those types of speed figures aren't what average runners achieve ... the mark of champion runners that is!