02/14/2016 8:23PM

Santa Anita stewards explore eligibility of starter handicap winner

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita stewards will conduct a hearing in coming weeks to determine whether China Girl Lover, the winner of the $43,170 Super Bowl Starter Handicap on Feb. 7, met the eligibility requirements of the restricted race.

The Super Bowl Starter Handicap was limited to horses that had started for a claiming price of $25,000 or less in 2015 or this year. China Girl Lover started in one claiming race during that time, a $16,000 race at a mile at Del Mar on Aug. 1, which the gelding won.

For that race, China Girl Lover was not eligible to be claimed under the provision of a 2008 rule enacted by the California Horse Racing Board. The rule allows a horse to return from a layoff of at least 180 days and be ineligible to be claimed for one race, provided the horse starts for a claiming price equal or greater to the claiming price of his previous race.

China Girl Lover finished seventh in a $16,000 claimer at Del Mar in July 2014, and had been rested for approximately 53 weeks before his return.

The 2008 rule was adopted to encourage owners to rest horses for an extended period and allow the horse to return to competition without risk of being claimed in his comeback race.

China Girl Lover is trained by Dan Hendricks for Patrick Sheehy.

Sunday, Hendricks acknowledged that the wording of the race conditions were vague regarding China Girl Lover’s eligibility.

“What it really is, is an interpretation of the wording,” Hendricks said. “You’re in a claiming race, but you’re not eligible to be claimed.”

In a one-page ruling issued Saturday, stewards Grant Baker, Scott Chaney, and Kim Sawyer said they have called for an inquiry and that a hearing will be conducted. Sunday, Chaney said the hearing has not been scheduled, but is likely to be heard in coming weeks.

No rival owners or trainers protested the eligibility of China Girl Lover in the Feb. 7 within the required time for an official protest, three racing days after the race, stewards said.

Since returning to racing last summer, China Girl Lover has won 4 of 8 starts and $107,480. The 6-year-old gelding has started in four starter handicaps or starter allowances during that time, winning a starter allowance at Los Alamitos in September, finishing second and third at Del Mar in November, and winning the Feb. 7 race.

China Girl Lover’s eligibility in the Los Alamitos race is not in question. The race was restricted to horses that had started for $25,000 or less in 2014 or 2015. The races at Del Mar – one on turf and one on the main track - were restricted to horses that had started for a claiming price of $20,000 or less in 2015.

Hendricks said he fears the stewards will disqualify China Girl Lover from the two races at Del Mar and the Feb. 7 race.

“I’d hate to see the owner lose three purses,” Hendricks said.

“The rule was done to protect horses and give them time off. Every time I entered, they said he was eligible.”

As for China Girl Lover, Hendricks said the gelding has thrived since the Feb. 7 race. There are no plans for another start in a starter handicap. Hendricks said he is looking for an allowance race at a longer distance on turf.