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Santa Anita: Sky Kingdom switches to turf in closing-day San Juan Capistrano
By Brad Free
ARCADIA, Calif. – The longest race of the year adds style to closing day of the long winter meet at Santa Anita – a 1 3/4-mile turf spectacle that is pure majesty.
The San Juan Capistrano Handicap will be run for the 74th time on Sunday, final day of the 71-day season. Although trainer Richard Mandella has not won the race in 20 years, the San Juan still kindles passion.
“I love it. It’s what Thoroughbred racing is all about,” Mandella said. “You see the beauty of the horse, the style of the jockey, you have time to watch it and get into it. I just think it’s a beautiful thing.”
Seven runners will need about two minutes, 45 seconds to finish the San Juan. Mandella starts improving Smart Ellis; two-time San Juan winner Ron McAnally starts Interaction. But the favorite this year, Sky Kingdom, is from an unlikely stable.
Bob Baffert trains the favorite in the San Juan?
“I never thought I would have a starter in the San Juan,” he said.
Baffert overlooked Totally Platinum and Sort It Out, longshots that were fourth and sixth in the 2006 San Juan. This year, Baffert has the horse to beat. Sky Kingdom switches to grass after an outstanding marathon victory on dirt in the Grade 3 Tokyo City.
“He handled that mile and a half pretty well,” Baffert said.
But will he handle grass? Sky Kingdom worked a slow three furlongs on turf Thursday in 41.20 seconds. “That was just a spin, I wanted to see how his action was,” Baffert said. “It was nice action.”
Sky Kingdom and jockey Martin Garcia could be the controlling speed as Baffert tries to add to his meet-leading totals. Baffert entered the weekend with 11 stakes out of his 38 wins.
Mandella has a smaller stable, but the trainer of Smart Ellis had a major impact in winter stakes. Mandella won the opening-day Grade 1 Malibu with Jimmy Creed, who returned later to win the Grade 2 Potrero Grande. Beholder won two Grade 1’s – the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks; Rumor won the Grade 3 Las Flores.
“We had some good horses that came together at a good time, and it made for a great meet,” Mandella said.
Jimmy Creed is aiming for the Met Mile; Beholder ships April 27 to run in the Kentucky Oaks on May 3; Rumor will accompany her and run May 4 in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff.
As for Smart Ellis, Mandella is realistic. “He’s not a great horse, but he is talented,” Mandella said. “He ran really well the other day, and I’ve always thought he would appreciate the long distance.”
Garrett Gomez rides Smart Ellis, whose 3-for-11 career includes a sharp second-level allowance win last time out. Mandella won the 1993 San Juan with Kotashaan.
McAnally, whose turf miler Suggestive Boy won twice during the meet before he was sidelined with a splint injury, starts Interaction in the San Juan. A fast-closing second in the Grade 2 San Marcos in February, he misfired and finished a flat fourth as the favorite March 16 in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey.
Interaction may have had an alibi.
“The boy said he didn’t like the turf last time. It was a little hard,” McAnally said.
He believes that with irrigation, the course will have more “give” on Sunday.
Joe Talamo is reunited with Interaction. McAnally won the San Juan in 1998 with Amerique and 1980 with John Henry.
The San Juan goes as race 7. All Squared Away, Fire With Fire, Lime Rickey, and Oilisblackgold are also entered.
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