03/16/2017 2:00PM

Santa Margarita tends to go south of the equator


The champions of last year have been all over the map through the first quarter of 2017. This is never a surprise.

California Chrome, Flintshire, and Beholder are part of the breeding world now, which means they are no longer called on to entertain. Arrogate underlined his championship by winning the $12 million Pegasus World Cup. Drefong, Songbird, and Tepin have yet to appear under silks, while Champagne Room and Classic Empire lost their only starts.

Finest City, the winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, made her first appearance of the season on the afternoon of Jan. 21 with a dominant performance in the Grade 2 Santa Monica at Santa Anita. That evening, her name was in the envelope at the Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park as champion female sprinter. The two events were not related, but it was fun to think so.

On Saturday, Finest City will face the red-hot Vale Dori, Buena Vista winner Wild at Heart, and the game closer Show Stealer in the 80th running of the Grade 1 Santa Margarita. At a mile and one-eighth on the main track, the Santa Margarita is one of Santa Anita’s legacy races, won by Hall of Famers Azeri, Bayakoa, Bed o’ Roses, Busher, Gallant Bloom, Gamely, Lady’s Secret, Paseana, Silver Spoon, Susan’s Girl, Two Lea, and Zenyatta.

Finest City, a granddaughter of Belmont and Travers winner Lemon Drop Kid, has spent most of her life sprinting. This is the headline hook – can she stretch her speed? The last mare to win the seven-furlong Santa Monica and the Santa Margarita in the same season was Lovlier Linda, who did it in 1985 for Willard Proctor and W.R. Hawn, so maybe it’s not as easy as it looks.

Students of form will recall, however, that Finest City came within a head of winning the nine-furlong John C. Mabee last summer on the Del Mar turf, and she was a very respectable third to the champions Beholder and Stellar Wind in last year’s Vanity Mile. Still, it takes a win to quiet the crowd.

Over there at the other end of the spectrum, the Argentine mare Estrechada is a racehorse who usually passes the nine-furlong marker with a yawn and a glance at the scenery. At home in South America, she was perfectly happy in events ranging from 2,200 to 2,600 meters, with the mile and a half somewhere in between.

Her trainer, Mike Puype, has avoided any kind of stereotyping. He handled a routing speed freak like Old Trieste, a world-class filly like Turbulent Descent, and a precocious 2-year-old like Cobra King. He won back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint with the redoubtable mare Mizdirection and the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap with Calidoscopio.

It was Calidoscopio who sent Estrechada to Puype last fall. Both were trained by Argentina’s Guillermo Frenkel-Santillan – better known as “Bebe” – but while Calidoscopio won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Marathon with a closing flourish, Estrechada flopped miserably at Santa Anita on Nov. 4 and was jogged home far behind the victorious Scuba.

“They brought two mares, and the other one broke down in the Distaff,” Puype said, referring to Corona Del Inca. “Talk about a terrible day. They asked me to take Estrechada even though I wasn’t really sure where she’d fit in our racing, and if I could even find races for her. On her form, she was clearly a mile-and-a-half mare.”

For a horse like that in the U.S., you might as well look for races underwater. Somehow, the overnight Astra Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on turf came along at Santa Anita in February, and Puype jumped at the chance to run. Estrechada, at odds of 56-1, finished second to Goodyearforroses.

“Then Goodyearforroses came back to win an even better race on the grass last weekend in the Santa Ana, which told me our mare’s race was legit,” Pupye said. “I could have run our mare there, but her form says she’s better on the dirt.”

Beginning with consecutive wins by the Chilean mare Tizna in 1974-75, South Americans have played the Santa Margarita like a fiddle: Lucy Manet (1977), Marimbula (1983), Bayakoa (1989-90), Paseana (1992 and 1994), Toda Una Dama (1998), Riboletta (2000), and Miss Match (2011) make for an impressive parade.

With the exception of Miss Match, who clicked at 45-1, none of those winners was a surprise. Estrechada, a Southern Hemisphere 6-year-old, had to work hard to be a Group 3 horse in her homeland, but that last race was her best in a while. Stewart Elliott, the freshly minted George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner, returns in the saddle for Puype, who said their tactics will not drastically change while going from 12 to nine furlongs.

“We have to stay within range,” Puype conceded. “But you can’t lose sight of the fact that you can get tired trying to chase too hard.

“There’s no question I could enhance her value by hitting the board,” Puype added. “And really, Finest City can’t just hand the race to Vale Dori and let her cruise on an easy lead like she’s been doing lately. I sure don’t think Finest City is showing up to run second. Even though my mare’s best distance isn’t a mile and an eighth, I’ve got to think, ‘What happens if the two favorites put up a half in 46 and change?’ ”