04/28/2011 2:51PM

Three who have paid their dues


With all things Kentucky Derby sucking the last drop of oxygen from the room, it is hard to believe that somewhere out there, beyond Saturday’s opening-night festivities at Churchill Downs, Thoroughbred racing hums along, oblivious to the unfolding drama in Louisville.

One of those places is Phoenix, the one in Arizona. The Saturday program at Turf Paradise offers 73 entries in nine races, including five stakes as part of Arizona Breeders Day. The card offers total purses of $180,000, a sum that does not quite reach the purse of the $200,000 Derby Trial alone at Churchill. Then again, the Derby Trial is not really a trial for the Derby, so at least the folks in Phoenix can’t be accused of a bait and switch.

Of course, Arizona never has pretended to be a verdant breeding ground. The Arizona foal crop of 2009 numbered just 251, and there were only 338 mares reported as bred to Arizona stallions in 2010. As a percentage of the national total, such numbers don’t quite reach one.

The state’s function in the big racing picture has been more significant as a reliable winter-time satellite to the major tracks of the West as well as a regional sanctuary for the industry. Through the years, a considerable amount of talent has been nurtured in the Southwest – ask Pat Day or Bob Baffert about their Arizona schooling – and even now, in an era of lower resources, raids from the Pacific Coast are common.

“We’ve had a good meet,” Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia said. “We’ll be up about 1 percent in ontrack handle and up 6 percent in attendance. That’s bucking the trend of the other local sports attractions, and we owe it to an outreach to new patrons through social networking.”

The Turf Paradise program Saturday honors a group of noteworthy Arizonans who made a mark in the racing and breeding traditions of the state. The $50,000 Gene Fleming Breeders’ Derby at 1 1/16 miles tops the card, supported by the $25,000 Joanne Dye Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs for 3-year-old fillies, the $25,000 Sandra Hall Grand Canyon Handicap at six furlongs, and the $25,000 Dwight D. Patterson Handicap at 1 1/16 miles, those last two open to all comers.

It will be the $25,000 Ann Owens Distaff Handicap, for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles, offering the most memorable tableau of the day. Quick, somebody get a picture of the trainer sending out Table Mesa, the defending champ, along with Jacksonville, a longshot in good form, standing with her two jockeys – then send it to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Sandi Gann, Scott Stevens, and Tyler Baze probably should be on display somewhere as examples of what jockey bodies can take and still come back for more.

Baze, 28, rides the longshot Jacksonville. He’s at the dawn of a comeback from four surgeries to repair facial fractures suffered last summer at Del Mar and has used Turf Paradise as a training ground and springboard to a reboot of a successful Southern California career that has been interrupted by injuries in 2009 and 2008 as well. His Turf Paradise roots go back to his Eclipse Award-winning apprentice season, when he communted back and forth from Phoenix to Los Angeles, riding seven days a week.

Stevens, 50, is a six-time Turf Paradise champion, who will be aboard Table Mesa. Stevens’s litany of riding damage came to an ugly head last July at Canterbury Downs, when he took the worst of a four-jockey wreck. Here is how Stevens described the carnage to Daily Racing Form colleague Jay Privman on the occasion of his 4,000th Thoroughbred winner in March:

“I broke both collarbones, and what they said were ‘more than eight and less than 22’ ribs,” Stevens said. “They were broken in multiple places on one side and loose. I broke my sternum, both lungs collapsed, there was a small tear in my spleen, and nerve damage to my fingers, which still lingers. I had complete numbness in the pinky and the finger next to it on both hands. The feeling has come back completely on my left hand, but on my right hand, the pinky is still numb. I think I did something to my elbow, where the nerves go through. I can bend and grip, but I can’t feel.”

Lording over these two warriors in the Ann Owens is trainer Sandi Gann, a former Turf Paradise riding champ who won 1,206 races before hip replacement surgery ended her career in August 2008. The surgery was required because of injuries suffered in a freak accident in the Turf Paradise winner’s circle. Before that, among other things, she broke her neck and was told she should never ride again, which she did anyway.

“I like to say I played for 20 years before going to work,” Gann said of her second life as a trainer. “But I knew how tough training was already. That’s why I put it off for so long.”

Gann has trained Table Mesa, a 6-year-old daughter of Comic Strip, for the past two seasons. Overall, the mare has won seven of 31 starts for Gann’s principal client, Dennis Weir, with another 17 finishes in the money. Gann even knew her way back when.

“I rode her when she broke her maiden as a 2-year-old,” Gann said, which is about as good a perspective as a trainer could have. “She’s a champion.”

As for the company Gann will be keeping in the paddock for the Ann Owens, she’ll feel right at home, although there will be no time to compare scars.

“Scott’s an amazing man, and it’s great to see Tyler back,” Gann said. “He’s had a couple bad ones. He’s got a long ways to go to catch up with me and Scott, though. And hopefully he won’t.”