02/24/2011 3:43PM

Ultra Blend packs premium punch


Old-timers are trying not to get too excited over the idea of 125-pound co-highweights in the $100,000 Valentine Dancer Handicap at Santa Anita Park on Saturday. After all, handicaps are pretty much going the way of the rotary dial phone, or MySpace. And with the scale of weights trending upward – maiden fillies carry 122 on the same card – the 125’s do not really threaten the memory of Forego and Discovery.

But the weights are well-earned, and the resulting spread (before jockey overweights are considered) nurtures the mood of a classic pari-mutuel event, with all involved having a theoretical chance going a mile on what figures to be firm turf.

The feature will mark the first appearance of the Braly family’s Evening Jewel as the freshly anointed California Horse of the Year. Her 2010 record of four major stakes wins in California and Kentucky was hard to top, and her recent victory in the Sunshine Millions Distaff indicates that she is ready to make 2011 every bit as successful.

The other 125-pounder is Harris Farm and partners’ Unzip Me, the 5-year-old daughter of City Zip who has produced an unbroken string of superior performances dating back to December of 2009. Unzip Me began a five-race win streak that day at Hollywood Park, suffered a narrow loss to colts in the Kerlan in June of 2010, then won twice more before finishing third to Chamberlain Ridge in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs.

In her first start of the year, Unzip Me dusted Evening Jewel in the Monrovia Handicap coming down the Santa Anita hillside course. On Saturday, however, they will be playing Evening Jewel’s game at a mile. Game on.

Should the heavyweights falter, count on Ultra Blend to be right there to take advantage of the situation. Like Unzip Me, this one has forgotten what it’s like to run an ordinary race.

A 5-year-old daughter of Richly Blended, Ultra Blend is owned by Nels Erickson and trained by Art Sherman, whose Haimish Hy ran a big race last weekend to be third in the San Luis Obispo, in his first start against older runners. Ancient history, though, as Sherman now concentrates on wishing Ultra Blend a little more luck.

“I can’t help thinking that with a better trip she would have won that last one,” Sherman said Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park.

He was talking about the Sunshine Millions Distaff, in which Ultra Blend finished third, beaten just half a length by Evening Jewel. The chart reads that Sherman’s mare was four-wide into the stretch that day, with Evening Jewel just inside her.

“Looked more like nine wide to me,” Sherman said, exaggerating only slightly. “And a couple jumps past the wire she’d gone by them all. But the way she drew for Saturday, it looks like she’ll have to find a way to save ground again.”

Ultra Blend landed post 10 of the 11 entered, which can present problems going once around the seven-furlong Santa Anita course. Then again, there literally has been nothing in the way of surface or distance that Ultra Blend has failed to handle with aplomb.

The Sunshine Millions Distaff was at 1 1/16 miles on fast dirt. Before that Ultra Blend took a pair of California-bred stakes over Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track surface. She was beaten just a neck on the Del Mar grass in the Solana Beach, hit the board in a stakes on the Golden Gate turf, won going six furlongs on the dirt at the Sacramento fair, and placed in stakes over Del Mar’s Polytrack as well as Santa Anita’s old Pro-Ride synthetics.

“I guess the only thing she hasn’t tried is mud,” Sherman said. “The synthetic track at Golden Gate gets faster when it’s wet. And when it rains anymore at Santa Anita, they end up going six furlongs in eight and change. You can’t exactly call that mud like the plowed fields I used to ride in.”

Ultra Blend acts the way she runs, with equal parts honesty and good nature.

“You can get some nasty, dirty rotten fillies that want to hurt you, fall down, just do all kinds of crazy things,” Sherman said. “She’s never done that. A real sweetheart. She’s one of those horses that just wants to be your friend and do her job.”

Sherman describes Ultra Blend as standing about 16-1, with a “good body, a good hip, a good rear end.” She had to be an efficient athlete, though, to be able to come back from an injury at age 3 that could have ended the careers of most Thoroughbreds. It happened in the 2009 Sandy Blue at Del Mar, going a mile on the grass, when she finished second to Excessive Blend.

“She came back with a crack in the cannon bone just above her ankle,” Sherman said. “We put a screw in it to hold it together, and she was out about eight months. I didn’t know if she’d come back as good as she was, but she did. And she’s gone right on.

“We always keep an eye on it,” Sherman added. “It’s not too pretty with that lump there above her ankle. I used to call that a ‘claiming ankle.’ But it doesn’t matter now, and it sure doesn’t matter to her.”

Sherman hopes Ultra Blend can hit a few more high notes this season.

“This will be her last year and she’ll be bred,” Sherman said. “She’s earned it. Only thing is, her kind is awful hard to replace.”