12/22/2011 5:11PM

Santa Anita: Mr. Commons taking a drop in Sir Beaufort


ARCADIA, Calif. – Three undercard stakes Monday at Santa Anita could ultimately overshadow the Grade 1 Malibu on opening day of the winter meet.

Mr. Commons, who threatens to become the top grass miler in California, will be heavily favored in race 8, the Grade 2 Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds. Mr. Commons will take a significant drop in class following a troubled fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Ismene could give the 2012 Oaks division a boost when she runs seven furlongs as the standout favorite in the first race of the meet. Unbeaten in two races, Ismene will be strongly backed in the filly division of the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes.

Stoney Fleece, a 2-year-old whose four wins already include a Grade 3 on turf, shortens in distance and drops in class for the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes, race 7. He faces Passing Game and Motown Man in the seven-furlong race.

Mr. Commons and Ismene will be two of the shortest prices on the opening day card, which begins with first post at 12 noon.

John Shirreffs trains Mr. Commons, whose late-season emergence as a top turf miler was no surprise. Sired by Artie Schiller, Mr. Commons won a maiden turf race by more than five lengths last winter before a main-track detour. Third in the Santa Anita Derby and unplaced in the Preakness, Mr. Commons returned to top form when he returned to turf.

He won the Oceanside for 3-year-olds, finished second in successive Grade 2’s against older, and then had a nightmare trip finishing fifth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He has trained well since.

The main rival for Mr. Commons is Ultimate Eagle, but he is not a certain starter. Trainer Mike Pender said Thursday that the streaking Ultimate Eagle could skip the race. “We’re wavering between the Sir Beaufort and the San Fernando,” Pender said, referring to the San Fernando on the main track Jan. 14.

Ultimate Eagle has won four straight grass races, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, but trains so well on dirt that Pender looks forward to trying him on the main track.

Comma to the Top stretches out and is likely to set the pace in the Sir Beaufort, while Venomous, Irish Art and Cozy Kitten will be rolling from behind.

The meet begins with an apparent standout in race 1. Ismene, trained by Bill Spawr, has won both her starts in stylish fashion, including a dominating Anoakia Stakes win vs. open company on Oct. 22. She stretches to seven furlongs in the Cal Breeders’.

Her new rider, Mike Smith, has been working her regularly, and even Spawr is amazed at what he sees. “It’s not how fast, it’s how she does it and how quickly she recovers,” he said.

Owned and bred by Steve Ferraro, Ismene enters with one concern. Spawr said she “does have an attitude.” Normally, Spawr would school her in the paddock leading to a race, but all her schooling leading to the first race of the meet has been in an empty paddock.

The running style of Ismene is no secret. Spawr said that, looking at past-performance lines, “I think she’s just faster than they are. She’s freaky fast.”

Rivals for Ismene in the Cal Breeders’ include Willa B Awesome, Almost a Lady, Belloma, Tangerine Tickle, and Warren’s Amber.

The male division of the Cal Breeders’ is deeper, though Passing Game’s 2-for-2 record and big Beyer Speed Figure of 83 last out will make him one of the favorites. After winning his debut May 15, trainer Gary Sherlock aimed for statebred stakes in July.

“I was saving him for Del Mar, but he got kicked in a hind leg and blew the whole meet,” Sherlock said. Passing Game returned Nov. 12 at Golden Gate, and won despite losing a ton of ground and rallying from far off the pace.

“To run that well off a six-month layoff, I know he’s not going to be short [in the Cal Breeders’],” Sherlock said.

Rivals for Passing Game include Motown Men, shortening in distance and dropping in class, potential pacesetter Johnny Be Mine and Grade 3 winner Stoney Fleece.

The last-out win by Stoney Fleece in a Grade 3 turf route makes him the “class” of the field. “He might be a little better on grass, but I know he can run well on dirt, also,” trainer John Sadler said. “He’s just a good, solid racehorse.”