01/14/2010 12:00AM

There's just no quit in Papa Clem

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - If there were an Eclipse Award on Monday night for persistence in the face of negative reinforcement, Papa Clem would have to be in the final three.

From that moment in Hot Springs last April, when he beat hotshot favorite Old Fashioned and an up-and-comer named Summer Bird in the $1 million Arkansas Derby, Papa Clem was thrown time after time into the deep end of the pool. He never got much more than hot, wet, and dirty, but he kept showing up, and for that he earned begrudging respect as a colt who wouldn't take no for an answer.

Then, after fighting for the minor awards in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell Invitational, Papa Clem bled as the favorite in the Del Mar Derby, and that was that. Owner Bo Hirsch and trainer Gary Stute trundled their colt off to a horsey spa in Bradbury, Calif., owned by trainer Vladimir Cerin. He got a few weeks of TLC and fresh air, not to mentioned a few cutting-edge treatments in a hyperbaric chamber, and came back to the track invigorated and looking for trouble.

He'll find plenty on Saturday at Santa Anita, when he faces seven other 4-year-old colts in the San Fernando Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the synthetic main track. Tyler Baze has the call in the San Fernando, which is worth $75,000 plus another $75,000 for Breeders' Cup nominees.

Along with the nine-furlong Strub Stakes next month, the restricted San Fernando is a quaint holdover from the days when the handicap ranks overflowed, and dominant 3-year-olds from the previous season - horses like Buckpasser, Damascus, Affirmed - could take a couple more bites out of their own generation before moving on.

These days, though, the best 3-year-olds from the previous year don't seem to make it as far as age 4, at least in competitive terms. Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Dunkirk, The Pamplemousse, Old Fashioned, Musket Man, Chocolate Candy, Friesan Fire, Quality Road - they all made their share of headlines last spring. Now they are either retired, or angling for some kind of return to lost glory. Either way, they were victims of the Triple Crown process, Rachel Alexandra, or both.

Which is why it is no surprise that Papa Clem's primary opponents on Saturday include the winners of the Lone Star Derby (Mythical Power), the Zia Park Derby (Quindici Man), and the Del Mar Derby on the grass (Rendezvous). These are derbies no one lies awake nights hoping to win, but the money spends, and before anyone makes a crack about Zia Park, bear in mind that the purse for their derby is the same as the San Fernando's total purse.

Papa Clem, his head held high and fighting for air, finished a little more than three lengths behind Rendezvous at Del Mar. He also blew the first turn that day, heading straight for the interstate. It was an ugly performance, diametrically opposed to his admirable work in the Arkansas Derby, or his subsequent fourth in the Kentucky Derby, when he missed second money by a nose and a head.

"I know they finished a long way behind Mine That Bird in the Derby," said Bo Hirsch, who bred Papa Clem and named him for his father, the California racing pioneer Clement Hirsch. "The same thing happened in the Haskell. Rachel Alexandra was in a class by herself, the way she won that race. People don't remember the three horses finishing about six lengths behind her were only about a length apart - Summer Bird, Munnings, and Papa Clem.

"So I was very proud," Hirsch said. "You take Mine That Bird away from the Derby and Rachel away from the Haskell, and we're in a dogfight to win both those. Of course, I have excuses for some of his races. We all find them. That's the business. That's what keeps us going."

Papa Clem was among the most widely traveled 3-year-olds of 2009, running as he did in six jurisdictions. This gave Hirsch a chance to sample not only the weather and the cuisine, from the Fair Grounds to Monmouth Park, but also to appreciate the various licensing procedures suffered by owners who want to compete away from home.

"I just want to go on record saying it's about the silliest system you've ever seen," Hirsch said. "God forbid somebody should have some common sense and do something about it. Every track and state - and no pun intended - has a license to steal. I made sure I got to every place a couple days before we ran so I could take care of all the paperwork. But how is it that Arkansas can't know what's going on in California, or Louisiana?"

For now, Hirsch and his colt will stick to California, where races like the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap loom (Hirsch's father won the 1970 Strub Stakes with Snow Sporting). Papa Clem came back to the races on Dec. 26 with a decent third behind the front-running M One Rifle in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, and was fresh enough that day to sit second to the winner almost all the way around.

"I was a little concerned he might quit at the top of the lane, and he didn't," Hirsch said. "I didn't expect that much speed out of him. But Tyler was using good judgment, based on the way the race came up. The winner is a great sprinter who deserved to win. All I hoped for was that our horse would finish in the money and be ready for the next one.

"I've had a lot of offers to buy him for stud," Hirsch added. "But I've said, 'Hey, he's not ready yet.' I'm not saying I even want to get in that business. I don't think he's shown his full potential yet. I just hope he shows his stuff on Saturday."