01/28/2011 5:10PM

Sweet August Moon isn't quite ready to stop racing


Pssst. Don’t tell Sweet August Moon, but if she throws in a so-so race in the $250,000 Santa Monica Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita Park, she’s got a date on the books with Smart Strike in Kentucky that any sensible mare would want to keep.

She has earned the right. Owned by Pete Parella’s Legacy Ranch and Team MacPherson, Sweet August Moon is 6 years old, with 20 starts and earnings just shy of half a million dollars. She is by the A.P. Indy stallion Malibu Moon, out of a Royal Academy mare, boasting a big, full-bodied carriage that screams of making beautiful babies.

Then again, Sweet August Moon seems to love her job, as indicated dramatically last summer, when she won the A Gleam Handicap at Hollywood Park and the Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar. Those wins propelled her eastward to Kentucky, where she ran head-on into Dubai Majesty at Keeneland and then Churchill Downs, and a lot of mares came out on the short end of those deals.

Lately, though, Sweet August Moon has been training up a storm on the Santa Anita dirt for Brian Koriner, which is exactly what Parella needed to hear if he was going to keep Smart Strike in limbo.

“It’s a tough race, what with Switch in there,” said Parella, referring to the Santa Monica favorite. “Baffert’s got a couple in there to worry about, too, so it’s hard to be super confident. But I’d be real surprised if she doesn’t run a big one.”

Back in early 2009, when Sweet August Moon was 4, she was acting like she wanted to be the division leader. But then back trouble knocked her to the sidelines, and she spent the next four months at Legacy Ranch before returning to trainer Brian Koriner.

“I’ve got no problem giving a horse time,” Parella said. “Either you give them time, or they take it. And when that happens it usually takes twice as long to get them back.”

When she returned, in early 2010, Sweet August Moon was thrown immediately into the deep end of the pool. In fact, it was in the Santa Monica, in which she finished last of 11.

With that under her belt, she ticked along with three solid, losing efforts until her 18-1 upset in the A Gleam. Sweet August Moon ran the same race right back at Del Mar in the Rancho Bernardo to punch her ticket to the Breeders’ Cup.

Parella’s family-owned Parr Lumber Co. in the Southern California town of Chino is the reason he can own more than a hundred Thoroughbreds and run a string of quarter horses, as well. Legacy’s Flying Fig was recently voted the AQHA’s 2-year-old champion filly of 2010, when she finished second in three major futurities and earned more than $700,000.

“Sometimes the Quarter Horses pay for the Thoroughbreds,” Parella said with a laugh.

Five years ago, Parella moved his Southern California-based Legacy Ranch operation to Clements, a little town in between Stockton and Sacramento at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Out West, this passes for horse paradise, and Parella has poured his heart and soul into Legacy’s new, 145-acre home.

“I’ve got 30 people working awful hard to make it a beautiful place to have horses,” Parella said this week. “You can’t compare it to Kentucky, though. When I was back there looking at farms I couldn’t believe all the money they spent on those places. I mean, there are people who don’t live as well as those horses. But that’s what happens when you stand stallions for fifty, sixty thousand. We can’t come close to those numbers.”

Parella need not apologize for an inch of his ranch. Visitors return from Clements extolling the virtues of Legacy, where the 2009 Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, a son of Smart Strike, is standing his second season at stud (news flash: Papa Clem’s first foal, a colt, hit the ground Jan. 25).

One of the many grass paddocks at Legacy also serves as the retirement home for two of Parella’s old equine pals. The Quarter Horse champion Griswold is 25, and the stakes-winning Thoroughbred His Legacy is 26.

“They’re both swaybacked now, but otherwise they look great,” Parella said. “The memories they gave us. They’ll get to live right there together until they’re called to a higher place.”

Beyond her value as a broodmare, Sweet August Moon has earned an everlasting place in the hearts of Pete and Evelyn Parella as the horse who took them to their first Breeders’ Cup as owners, last November at Churchill Downs. Yes, the mare finished fifth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, at odds of 39-1, but there was more to the experience.

“Both at Keeneland and with the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, we were treated so well,” Parella said. “The racetracks out here could learn a few things about hospitality.”

As for the race itself against Dubai Majesty, Parella noted that Sweet August Moon was a lot farther back early than he’d anticipated.

“Maybe it was the track, maybe it was just circumstances,” Parella said. “After the race we debated about just leaving her in Kentucky to be bred or bring her home. She looked so good and was doing so well, Brian said, ‘Why not try her over the new track at Santa Anita before we decide?’ The way she’s trained, right now that’s looking like it was a good move. I’ve got a feeling Smart Strike might have to wait.”