Santa Anita cancels nine-race card

Well, perhaps it’s fitting that this is the weekend Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach picked to visit the Southland. He gets to witness first-hand the track’s fifth cancellation of the year and 16th dating back to 2008.

This time it’s the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, one of the important races of the meet for 3-year-olds with Kentucky Derby aspirations, that takes the hit. Although there is no official word yet from track officials, they’ll probably re-card it next weekend, putting these horses a week behind in preparing for the Triple Crown series.

Santa Anita needs to do the right thing, which is install a new dirt surface when the Pro-Ride is torn out at the end of the meet. They need something that is tried and tested and is 120 percent certain to work. If management is CERTAIN this new sandy, dirt track that Stronach advocates will work, fine, but how can they know when it’s been used only for show jumping, one training track in Spain and Stronach’s track in Austria that races less than two weeks a year?

There’s a very good chance we’re going to lose Lookin At Lucky to Oaklawn Park. It appears trainer Bob Baffert is close to taking the Derby favorite to the Rebel Stakes and then leave him there for the Arkansas Derby on April 10. It’s a sad commentary that trainers now take their top 3-year-olds to other venues to prepare for this country’s most popular horse race.

It’s time Santa Anita stopped all the games and the pro-synthetic folks ceased with all their numbers and statistics that are colored to fit their arguments. Ladies and gentlemen, California horse racing used to be the model for the sport. It’s getting to the point where it’s now the laughing stock of the rest of the industry.

These are sad, sad times for anyone who truly loves this game.

Can Stronach be convinced to try a third synthetic?

Frank Stronach, chairman of Santa Anita’s parent company Magna Entertainment Corp., is due in town this weekend to meet with Southern California horsemen about a number of subjects, the biggest being the track’s future racing surface.

Track president Ron Charles announced Jan. 18 that Santa Anita will remove its current Pro-Ride surface at the end of the current meet and go a different route. At the time, Charles said track management was seriously considering the installation of a traditional dirt surface. It’s been widely speculated since that a dirt track was just a formality, that Santa Anita would be announcing its plans any day.

But days have turned to weeks, and it’s now been more than a month since the initial announcement and still no further word from Santa Anita.

On Jan. 31, Charles told me outside the Santa Anita winner’s circle that the announcement was being delayed because of Magna’s bankruptcy proceedings, that nothing could be officially announced until those were finalized.

On Feb. 6, the day Santa Anita was forced to cancel racing for a fourth time this season and 15th in the past three years when the track would not drain following heavy rain, Santa Anita GM George Haines told me he had no update on when an announcement would be made.

“I’m not sure of (Stronach’s) schedule,” Haines said.

Even though Stronach told me in an exclusive interview on the eve of his scheduled Southland arrival tonight that he won’t install a third synthetic at Santa Anita, one Southern California racing official familiar with the goings on at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar is convinced the pro-synthetic folks are trying to persuade Stronach to continue to support synthetics.

“It’s game on … (pro-synthetic officials) are pressing as hard as they can for synthetics,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic and the fact a final decision has not been announced. “They are doing everything they possibly can to lobby Frank to go (synthetics), that (Santa Anita) needs to stay the course here. And I know one of the (arguing points) is the cost.

“It will be a miracle if (Santa Anita) gets back to dirt. They’re all in to keep it synthetic.”

However, Stronach sounded a very different tone on Thursday.

“The synthetic surface, the way they are, I’ve never liked them,” he said.

He went on to say he is considering a sandy, dirt surface that includes a small amount of fiber but is basically a natural track that is “very safe.”

Stronach said he is keeping an open mind, but when asked if it was a safe bet to assume he was leaning toward the sandy surface, he said: “It’s a safe bet to say I will go through all the hoops to make sure we got the right surface.”

So perhaps this move to dirt is not a slam dunk after all.

Who will win out? Is Stronach so fed up with synthetics that nothing can sell him on installing a third edition, or will the pro-synthetic crowd influence him to give it another try “for the good of the industry?”

We can only hope that going through all the hoops to choose the right surface doesn’t turn out to be an exercise in disaster like Santa Anita’s Cushion Track and Pro-Ride surfaces.

I was one who believed this was a slam dunk. I still think the track will be more conventional than synthetic, but I’m not as sure as I was one week ago.

Lookin At Lucky remains atop Kentucky Derby rankings

Although Eskendereya turned in by far the most impressive Kentucky Derby prep to date last Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 8 1/2 lengths, we kept Lookin At Lucky atop our latest Derby rankings because you can’t drop the 2-year-old champion just because he hasn’t made his 2010 debut yet.

Speaking of impressive performances, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Dubin turned in the best Derby prep by a losing horse in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., closing strongly to finish second behind gate-to-wire winner Conveyance.

Here’s my latest Derby rankings that I submitted this week to the Paulick Report, which publishes turf writers’ Top 10 Derby lists weekly:

1. Lookin At Lucky — Baffert colt may make 2010 debut in Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13
2. Eskendereya — Will he be the colt to snap Pletcher’s 0-for-24 drought in Run for the Roses?
3. Super Saver — Slated to make 3-year-old debut in Gotham on March 6 or Rebel the following week
4. Caracortado — Can gelding become first Cal-bred to win Derby since Decidedly in 1962?
5. Dublin — Surgery for entrapped epiglottis seems to have gotten this colt back on the right track
6. Rule — Sam F. Davis Stakes winner ticketed for Florida Derby (March 20) or Wood (April 3) next
7. Dave in Dixie — Probably Sadler’s top Derby hopeful, he’ll start next in San Felipe at Santa Anita
8. Buddy’s Saint — Ranked second last week, this guy had a terrible trip in Fountain of Youth
9. Discreetly Mine — Gate-to-wire Risen Star winner another from the potent Pletcher stable
10. Conveyance — Who’s to say this Baffert colt can’t keep doing what he’s done up to this point?

I haven’t given up on Tiz Chrome and Eightyfiveinafifty, but time is running out on those two speedsters. They have to show something really quick to stay on the trail. Tiz Chrome is ticketed for the Gotham on March 6 at Aqueduct as Baffert moves him back to dirt. Look for a big effort there. One colt to keep an eye on who’s not on this list is the Sadler-trained Sidney’s Candy, who recently won the San Vicente Stakes — a proving ground for nine Kentucky Derby winners — at Santa Anita by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:20.91 — the second fastest San Vicente ever behind Georgie Boy’s 1:20.01 in 2008. The son of Candy Ride will try two turns for the first time when he goes in the 1 1/16-mile Gotham in his next start. Sadler wants to keep his top two Derby hopefuls apart before the big day in May.

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Machowsky confident about Caracortado taking to dirt

Trainer Mike Machowsky doesn’t believe his unbeaten Kentucky Derby hopeful Caracortado will have any problem transferring his synthetic-track form over to dirt when the time comes.

The gelded son of Cat Dreams won his debut over Fairplex Park’s dirt surface in a $40,000 maiden claimer on Sept. 24 before rolling off four consecutive victories on synthetics.

Machowsky was honest when asked why he started Caracortado at Fairplex Park.

“Because I knew I could get a good price on him,” he chuckled.

Now the gelding’s connections are laughing all the way to the bank. They appear to have a viable Derby candidate on their hands. He is scheduled to race next in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 13 against Lookin At Lucky. Both Derby contenders would then come back in three weeks to run in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3 before a trip to Louisville for the big one.

Much like Bob Baffert with Pioneerof the Nile last spring, Machowsky is not nervous about how Caracortado will race over Churchill Downs’ tricky dirt surface. Some horses, like Mine That Bird, love it, while others, like Point Given in 2001, just don’t take to it.

“My philosophy is, if a horse handles synthetic, he’s probably going to handle the dirt,” Machowsky said. “(Caracortado’s) a really good moving horse and I think the synthetics are a tougher surface for some horses to handle. I’ve had some horses that I know don’t love it, but they win over it and I know they’re better on the dirt. I think that a horse that handles synthetic can about handle anything.”

Machowsky, who campaigned Southern Image during 2004 when the colt won the Sunshine Millions Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Pimlico Special, also has another promising 3-year-old in his barn named Nextdoorneighbor, who is scheduled to race in the Sham Stakes next Saturday at Santa Anita.

Rachel Alexandra favored over Zenyatta

In the first odds I’ve seen on the $5 million Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park on April 9, an off-shore wagering site lists reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexanda as a minus-145 favorite over Zenyatta.

Zenyatta, 14-0 lifetime, is plus-115, which means you’d have to wager $145 on Rachel Alexandra to get back $100 and a $100 wager on Zenyatta would return $115. Both horses must start for there to be action.

Of course, other horses will also be running in the Apple Blossom, meaning this is strictly a bet on which distaffer you believe will outfinish the other, no matter where both finish in the race.

Kentucky Derby hopefuls ready for a big weekend

More than a dozen serious Kentucky Derby contenders are scheduled to enter the starting gates Saturday in the $300,000 Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the $250,000 Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., and the $250,000 Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

It’s the single biggest day of Derby preps yet, and all three serve as springboards to bigger 3-year-old races down the line, eventually culminating in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1.

The Risen Star, which at 1 1/16 miles is the major prep for the Louisiana Derby on March 27, has attracted Lecomte Stakes winner Ron the Greek, who came from last to win the Grade 3 stake with a powerful closing kick. It will also include Discreetly Mine, one of many Todd Pletcher Derby contenders, and the Bill Mott-trained Drosselmeyer.

The Fountain of Youth, the longest of Saturday’s three races at 1 1/8 miles, is the final major springboard to the Florida Derby on March 20. It drew a field of 10, including Buddy’s Saint, who is ranked No. 2 in our Kentucky Derby Top 10 and will be making his 2010 debut. It will also include a pair of Pletcher hopefuls — Aikenite and Eskendereya —
and the Nick Zito-trained Jackson Bend, who is the 5-2 morning-line favorite.

The Southwest Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile event that was canceled Monday because of freezing temperatures and rescheduled for Saturday, attracted a field of 10 that includes three local horses — Conveyance (Bob Baffert), Domonation (John Sadler) and Cardiff Giant (Jorge Periban). Two other colts on many Derby watch lists — Dryfly and Dublin — also will run in the Southwest, which is a major prep for the Arkansas Derby on April 10.

Meanwhile, the Richard Dutrow-trained D’ Funnybone, thought to be a major Derby contender last fall before a last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 7, will try to climb back into the picture when he starts in the $150,000 Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes, a 7-furlong event for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park that will be run two races before the Fountain of Youth.

If you’re planning to watch the three Derby preps on the Internet, the Risen Star goes off first at about 1:45 p.m., PST, followed by the Southwest Stakes at about 2:25 p.m. and the Fountain of Youth at 2:40. If you’re interested in the Hutcheson, it’s scheduled to go postward at about 1:35 p.m., PST.

Latest Kentucky Derby rankings

Submitted this week to the Paulick Report, which publishes turf writers’ Top 10 Derby lists weekly:

1. Lookin At Lucky — Slated to make 2010 debut in San Felipe on March 13
2. Buddy’s Saint — Working well at Gulfstream for start in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth
3. Super Saver — May surface in Gotham Stakes on March 6 at Aqueduct
4. Jackson Bend — Another talented colt ticketed for the Fountain of Youth
5. Eskendereya — Jockey John Velazquez’s best Kentucky Derby chance?
6. Rule — Looked good airing opposition in Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs
7. Ron the Greek — Closer slated for start in Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Saturday
8. Dave in Dixie — Is this come-from-behinder a real threat or ultimate tease?
9. Tiz Chrome — Deserves another shot off fourth-place effort in Lewis Stakes
10. Eightyfiveinafifty — Fell off most Derby lists after bolting in Aqueduct’s Whirlaway

I turned in my ballot before Sidney’s Candy scored his impressive victory in Monday’s San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. Inadvertently left Caracortado out of my top 10 after his impressive 1 3/4-length victory in Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. He should have been eighth, ahead of Dave in Dixie and Tiz Chrome. That will be corrected next week. Trainer John Sadler said he’ll most likely send Sidney’s Candy, who overpowered the San Vicente field by 4 1/4 lengths, to Aquduct for the Gotham Stakes on March 6. Dave in Dixie will start next in the San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 13.
The Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, canceled Monday because of freezing temperatures, will now be run Saturday and is scheduled to include the Sadler-trained Domonation, D. Wayne Lukas’ Dublin and the Bob Baffert-trained Conveyance.

Zenyatta, Rachel no sure things in their 2010 debuts

When reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and the unbeaten Zenyatta make their scheduled returns to the track on March 13, there will be a pair of distaffers waiting in the wings to shock the world.

The connections for both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta should be afraid … very afraid. Or at the least, very respectful. Particularly Zenyatta, who most likely will face a 5-year-old mare in St Trinians who is as sharp as any horse currently running at Santa Anita.

Remember, St Trinians, who beat Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic champ Life Is Sweet in Saturday’s Grade 2 Santa Maria Handicap while getting seven pounds from her rival, and the up-and-coming Clear Sailing, now three for four lifetime after winning Saturday’s Pelleteri Stakes at the Fair Grounds, will take on the two distaff giants of the racing world with a clear advantage in “now” form. They’ve both been racing, while Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have been on the sidelines.

Now, there’s no doubt here that trainers Steve Asmussen and John Shirreffs will have their horses geared up and ready to run, or they won’t race. They’re not going to take these talented opponents for granted, but that doesn’t mean that both St Trinians and Clear Sailing are not set up for top efforts that could mean trouble for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

Take St Trinians, for example. The daughter of Piccolo has won all four starts in this country since debuting for the Mike Mitchell barn in March 2009 at Santa Anita, gradually climbing up the class ladder until she beat the princess of Shirreffs’ barn on Saturday.

Now, she’s going to go after the queen in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 13 if all goes according to plan.

“There’s no reason not to,” Mitchell said. “It should be fun, should make for a fun day. Nobody respects Zenyatta, John Shirreffs and that whole team more than me, but we can’t give it to them. We gotta make ’em earn it.”

Then there’s Clear Sailing, a 4-year-old Empire Maker filly who closed from last to win the Pelleteri by a neck and perhaps earn herself a start in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes at the Fair Grounds on March 13, which just happens to be Rachel Alexandra’s destination for her 2010 debut.

“If the timing is right and my horse is healthy and we can add to our horse’s resume, we won’t hesitate,” winning trainer Glenn Delahoussaye said. “I can’t worry about who else will be in there.”

So while we all eagerly anticipate the potential showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park on April 9, let’s not forget that it’s not set in stone that Zenyatta will still be unbeaten or that Rachel Alexandra will have continued her winning ways by the time they collide.

There are a couple of distaffers named St Trinians and Clear Sailing, and likely a few more, who will be waiting to try to knock them off their perches atop the racing world.

It’s much tougher to stay on top when everyone is gunning for you than it is to reach the pinnacle.

Be afraid … be very afraid.

Blind Luck cuts it close in Grade 1 Las Virgenes

When Blind Luck, one of the top 3-year-old fillies in the country, and 18-1 long shot Evening Jewel hit the wire virtually simultaneously in Saturday’s $250,000 Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita, the 1-5 favorite’s jockey was sure who had won.

“As soon as we crossed the wire, I knew we had won it,” Rafael Bejarano, who enjoyed a riding triple on the day, said of Blind Luck.

Sure enough, when the photo sign came down, it was Blind Luck who got the nod by the slimmest of noses for her fifth victory in seven races. It was her first start since a seven-length frolic in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20.

But as sure as Bejarano was about the victory, one of the filly’s owners, Mark DeDominico, and the trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, were not quite as confident.

“Jerry said she got it, so I wanted to believe him,” said DeDominico, who didn’t think his filly was going to be able to make up what was at one point a nine-length deficit down the backside.

“This track is a little biased,” he said. “I thought it was going to be really tough down the lane for her to close that kind of ground on the outside. Sort of reminded me of the Breeders’ Cup all over again. It was the same problem — inside was fast and outside was slow.”

Said Hollendorfer: “I’ve watched a lot of photos, and the first time I wasn’t sure, but the second time I thought we won, and I’m glad we did.”

Hollendorfer thinks the Las Virgenes’ one-mile distance is probably too short for the Pollard’s Vision filly, who finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita on Nov. 6.

“I think truthfully we’re looking for a little more distance for this filly,” he said. “I think she will be better with longer distance.”

That longer distance will come in her next scheduled start, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on March 6, Santa Anita Handicap day. The Oaks is 1 1/16 miles and figures to set her up well for the Kentucky Oaks, run at 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Hollendorfer, who also owns part of Blind Luck, said his partners asked him to nominate the filly to the Triple Crown races, even though he said he has no plans to run her in the Derby.

“I willingly did that,” he said. “I’m not thinking that way, but at least we have that in case some opportunity presents itself.”

Blind Luck ran the mile in 1:35.98 after chasing the slow fractions of 24.31, 48.41 and 1:12.59 set by the pacesetting Switch with Tyler Baze aboard. Switch faded to third, losing second by a half-length to the runner-up.

It was a tough defeat for James Cassidy, who trains Evening Jewel, the filly who looked like a winner every step of the way but the final jump. And even then, it looked she might have held on.

“That’s as tough as it gets,” Cassidy said, adding that he thought his filly had won when she hit the wire.

The three-victory afternoon for Bejarano helped him open a 44-29 lead over second-place Victor Espinoza in the jockey standings as he attempts to become the first rider since Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1979-81 to win three consecutive Santa Anita jockey titles.

Jackson: Rachel will make 2010 debut on March 13

Owner Jess Jackson announced late Thursday night that 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, scheduled to square off against the unbeaten Zenyatta in what shapes up as the race of the past half-century in the Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 at Oaklawn Park, will make her 2010 debut in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles at the Fair Grounds on March 13.

Zenyatta, 14-0 and the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is also scheduled to make her season debut on March 13 in the $250,000 Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita — a 1 1/8-mile race for older fillies and mares on the synthetic Pro-Ride surface.

“That is our intended goal,” Jackson said. “I believe she’s on schedule and she’ll get the prep race before she goes on to Oaklawn. There are other tracks that have offered to have us go, but right now we’d rather stay here.”

Rachel Alexandra has been stabled at the Fair Grounds during a wet and cold winter. She’s had two works since being put back into training following a five-month layoff after she beat males for the third time last year in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga on Sept. 5. She breezed four furlongs in 50 3/5 seconds last Saturday.

“We’re obviously thrilled by the news that Rachel Alexandra, already a legend based on her accomplishments last year, intends to make her 2010 debut at Fair Grounds,” Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager Eric Halstrom said. “We are already working to make sure March 13 will be a special day befitting of racing royalty.”

Fair Grounds management added the New Orleans Ladies to the stakes schedule last fall, hoping to lure Rachel Alexandra, 8-0 last year, for her 4-year-old debut. It looks like they’ll get their wish, showcasing the fabulous filly in front of New Orleans racing fans.

Jackson is hoping that the race attracts a solid field of fillies and mares.

“I’d really like to have more than just nominal competition in the race,” Jackson said. “Assuming it’s a fair race I don’t expect Rachel to have any trouble, but at the same time, regardless of whether they’re superstars or not, it embellishes the track’s reputation and Rachel’s reputation to have the best possible competition.”

Jackson hopes the weather lets up so Rachal Alexandra can keep up a regular routine and make the New Orleans Ladies.

“It’s not anyone’s fault, but with the rain and the track conditions it’s been a serious setback to Rachel’s routine,” Jackson said. “When you’re training a horse it’s an animal that needs to have a regular routine, and Steve’s been hard-pressed to keep her going given the weather. When we do get her to the track it’s well maintained, but she’s behind schedule and that means we’re compressed to try to get everything done and keep her on schedule leading up to works and preparing her for a major competition at Oaklawn.”

Of course, the Apple Blossom would lose some of its luster if either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra were to lose their prep race, although fans of both horses would still turn out in force to watch their favorite at Oaklawn Park.