01/09/2009 12:00AM

Win can't ease family's huge loss


ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer David Bernstein met jockey Martin Pedroza in the paddock before Thursday's second race at Santa Anita with a lump in his throat. Bernstein was about to give Pedroza a leg up on the 7-year-old gelding Return of the King, but admitted that such a routine gesture was far from easy.

The gelding was previously owned by Joseph and Alicia Ortega, who were among nine people killed in a shooting and fire in their home in nearby Covina, Calif., on Dec. 24.

Return of the King was the family's first starter since the murders. Thursday, Return of the King raced in the name of James Ortega, a son of the late couple who also died in the tragedy. In the paddock, Bernstein was surrounded by about 20 friends of the Ortegas.

A few minutes later, they watched Return of the King win the six-furlong race for $40,000 claimers.

"This was special," Bernstein said. "It was hard to keep from crying in the paddock - everyone else was. I knew it would be tough."

James Ortega left Return the King to his son James Edward Ortega, 52, who did not attend the races Thursday.

Police said last month that the couple's former son-in-law, Bruce Pardo, was responsible for the shooting and set fire to the home. He later committed suicide.

Return of the King is typical of the horses the Ortegas campaigned, Bernstein said. Claimed for $16,000 in 2006, he has won three times in the past year, all in claiming races.

Bernstein said last month that he was friends with the Ortega family for more than 30 years.

"The horses were a big part of their lives," said Jerry Rocha, a family friend from Asuza, Calif., who attended Thursday's race. "They were the greatest family you'd want to meet. We're here for the family. It didn't matter whether the horse won or lost."

Indian Blessing to face males in sprint

Suddenly, the $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita on Jan. 25 has become an intriguing early-season sprint.

Thursday, trainer Bob Baffert said that Indian Blessing, the winner of three Grade 1 stakes last year and a finalist for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding female sprinter of 2008, is a candidate for the Grade 2 Palos Verdes at six furlongs.

Baffert said the Palos Verdes would serve as a prep for the $2 million Golden Shaheen Sprint in Dubai on March 28.

The Palos Verdes would be Indian Blessing's first start against males, and could draw In Summation, the race's defending champion, and Desert Code, winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint here in October.

Baffert said the idea of starting Indian Blessing against males before an overseas trip against males is intriguing.

"With her, she's brilliant," he said. "I can get away with it. I'm keeping all my options open."

Owned by breeders Hal and Patti Earnhardt, Indian Blessing, 4, has won 9 of 12 starts. Her Grade 1 wins last year came in the Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park, Test Stakes at Saratoga, and the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 27.

"She's very happy," Baffert said. "She's really doing better since her last race."

Desert Code has not started since the BC Turf Sprint. He was considered for stakes in Hong Kong and at Hollywood Park in late fall, but was briefly sidelined by an ankle sprain. Desert Code has resumed training at Santa Anita.

A start in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes would be Desert Code's first start on the main track since a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park last July. He won the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap on the main track at Hollywood Park in June 2007.

Trainer David Hofmans said the long-term goal is the BC Turf Sprint here in November.

"I want to keep him fit and run him sparingly," Hofmans said. "Hopefully, we can keep him around for the Breeders' Cup."

The Palos Verdes may also feature Johnny Eves, the winner of the Grade 3 Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park last month who finished last in the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap on Jan. 1.

Johnny Eves finished 17 lengths behind race winner In Summation after fighting for the early lead.

"We don't know how to explain the dull effort," trainer Jay Robbins said. "I don't know what I'll do. I wouldn't rule out anything."

In Summation is a candidate for the Palos Verdes and the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint for California-breds and Florida-breds at six furlongs here on Jan. 24.

Square Eddie breezes for San Rafael

Thursday morning, trainer Doug O'Neill watched Square Eddie, his leading 3-year-old, breeze six furlongs in 1:13.40 at Hollywood Park, preparing for a start in the $100,000 San Rafael Stakes at a mile on Jan. 17.

Later that day, O'Neill was surprised to learn that Square Eddie was not among the three finalists for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding 2-year-old male of 2008. The finalists are Midshipman, the winner of the BC Juvenile; Vineyard Haven, the winner of the Champagne Stakes in October; and Old Fashioned, the unbeaten winner of the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes in November.

Owned by Paul Reddam, Square Eddie, a Kentucky-bred who began his career in England, has made two starts in this country, winning the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in a 9-1 upset on Oct. 4 and finishing second, 1 1/4 lengths behind Midshipman, in the BC Juvenile.

"I was very disappointed that he wasn't one of the three names," O'Neill said. "That was shocking. I guess we'll let his 3-year-old season do the talking."

O'Neill said he timed Square Eddie on Thursday galloping out seven furlongs in 1:26 and a mile in 1:40.

"He was so easy and so impressive," he said. "He galloped out full of energy. Within minutes, he recovered very quickly and drank about a quarter of a bucket of water. He looked like he'd had a routine gallop."

The Grade 2 San Rafael is the first major test for 3-year-olds in 2009 at Santa Anita, and is a prep for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 4.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the current owner of Return of the King. He is James Edward Ortega, not James Ortega, the father of James Edward and who was among those killed in the incident.