01/10/2012 3:55PM

Santa Anita: Smart Ellis, Spirit Rules challenge Sky Kingdom

Shigeki Kikkawa
Sky Kingdom ran fourth in the CashCall Futurity.

ARCADIA, Calif. – January is the right time for 3-year-olds to experiment, which is why sprinter Spirit Rules will try two turns and turf horse Smart Ellis will try dirt Thursday at Santa Anita.

The sprinter and the grass horse meet likely favorite Sky Kingdom in race 2, a 1 1/16-mile main-track allowance that will lead to either the Derby trail or a letdown.

“If he does happen to be a two-turn horse, a lot of good things can happen,” Spirit Rules’ trainer, Paul Aguirre, said. Spirit Rules crushed maidens Dec. 16 by more than eight lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 93. The question Thursday – how far can he run?

Aguirre believes Spirit Rules, a Tribal Rule gelding, is begging for a route. “This horse does not look like a sprinter – he’s not compact,” Aguirre said. “He’s a big, long, grand-looking horse. This is a good spot to try something.” Joe Talamo, off to an uncharacteristically slow 1-for-55 start at the meet, rides Spirit Rules.

Distance is not an issue for Smart Ellis. His last three starts, including a maiden win, have been around two turns at a mile or more. But on Thursday, Smart Ellis will race on dirt for the first time.

“He always worked fabulously on the main track. I’ve wanted to try him on it,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “I just wish I had another week. But he seems good enough to throw right back in there.”

Smart Ellis ran 12 days ago, finishing fourth by 3 1/4 lengths in a grass stakes that was his first start in nearly three months. Sired by Smarty Jones and a half-brother to Grade 1-placed, Grade 3 dirt winner Olmodavor, Smart Ellis should like the surface.

Before his turf comeback, Smart Ellis posted a flashy Dec. 25 work on dirt in 1:12.20. He was in company that day with Rumor, who came out of the work to win a Dec. 31 stakes with a Beyer Figure of 99. Garrett Gomez was named Thursday on Smart Ellis, but he is sidelined with a broken heel. As of Tuesday, a replacement rider had yet to be named.

While Spirit Rules and Smart Ellis face distance-surface challenges, likely favorite Sky Kingdom is solid. An improving son of Empire Maker, he followed a maiden with a respectable fourth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity on Dec. 17. The allowance Thursday is easier.

“This will set him up for here, or out of town,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “I just want to get outs [starts] in these horses.”

Baffert also entered Sir Allison, who wired $75,000 maiden-claiming sprinters seven days ago in 1:08.95. How far he can run is a mystery. “He should probably set the pace,” Baffert said.

Race 2 is the first of three allowances. Race 6 is a second-level allowance route on dirt in which the Carla Gaines-trained Smart Spending looks like the right horse stretching to a route after a decisive first-level allowance win at seven furlongs.

“He’s got the pedigree for it, he’s by Smarty Jones and a half-brother to Lawyer Ron,” Gaines said. “I don’t think distance would be an issue.”

Smart Spending, 3 for 5, faces Ron Ellis-trained Megastar and Believe in Hope, along with Tiz Argent, Commander, and Thirtyfirst Street.

Race 7 is a 1 1/4-mile allowance in which Antidote and Renegade Storm will try to run down likely pacesetter Admission.