Rail Trip, who along with Misremembered is one of the top male handicap horses on the West Coast, returns to the races for the first time since last summer’s third-place finish in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar when he faces six rivals Saturday in the $150,000 Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park — one of the main preps for the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 10.
Rail Trip has won six of nine lifetime with two seconds and a third, winning last year’s Gold Cup in only his eighth career start. He then raced in the Pacific Classic before trainer Ron Ellis decided to shut him down for the year because of some very minor foot issues.
“He’d just had enough for the year,” Ellis said. “His feet started to get sore and I was just battling too much with him. After the Gold Cup, that was kind of finishing off a lot of races for him and then down at Del Mar he didn’t really handle Del Mar well and he didn’t do well down there and he started getting foot trouble. It was just one of those things that I just thought we were pushing him too far and I didn’t want to get an injury. If he wasn’t going to be 100 percent, there wasn’t any sense in running.”
There had been talk of running Rail Trip in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but that talk ended shortly after the Pacific Classic.
“For me, it wasn’t a huge disappointment,” Ellis said. “He came so far so fast. I mean, he was a maiden in November (2008) and then won the Gold Cup in July. I was kind of looking at it where I was really pretty thankful for where he was at than what we didn’t get. This is our year to point for the Breeders’ Cup. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t make it there this year.”
Ellis said that looking back, he doesn’t think Rail Trip was quite right for the Pacific Classic, when the Jump Start gelding finished behind long-shot winner Richard’s Kid and Einstein.
“But I thought he ran a phenomenal race,” Ellis said. “He got into some trouble down the backside, it was the first time he’d ever been behind horses and he really gutted it out. But for me, it wasn’t his ‘A’ race. He’s coming back really, really well.”
Plans call for Rail Trip to run in the Mervyn LeRoy, the Californian (June 12) and the Gold Cup en route to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. Ellis said he’d like to race the 5-year-old gelding five times before the Breeders’ Cup.
“For now, we’re going to stay here at Hollywood, try to hit the Gold Cup, and then after that our plans are kind of up in the air,” he said. “I’m not looking to run him a whole lot of times this year. We’re not looking for a real heavy campaign. I thought the horses that won (at) the Breeders’ Cup last year and most years are horses that are lightly raced and doing well at the end of the year instead of the ones that have campaigned all year long. We’re kind of looking to be that fresh horse. But he’s got to get enough under him to be ready to run that huge race.
“Hollywood Park is kind of where he’s been based most of the time and he does really well at this track. We’re going to keep him here during Del Mar, but I wouldn’t say he’s not going to run in the Pacific Classic. That’s a definite possibility.”
Ellis was asked how he thinks Rail Trip, who’s run all nine of his races on synthetic tracks, will fare on dirt.
“I think he’ll like it,” he said. “The one thing about this Hollywood track, it’s not a real heavy synthetic. I’ve always said if you’ve got Del Mar over here, Santa Anita’s over here and then dirt’s over here, I think Hollywood is somewhere in the middle. I don’t think you’ll see horses that run well here at Hollywood Park have that much trouble with a sandy race track.
“I think the horses that run well (at Hollywood Park) will like the dirt at Churchill because it’s a sand-based track and not what you’d call a dirt-dirt track. It’s more of a sandy surface.”
Ellis said he’s not adverse to running Rail Trip in the Breeders’ Cup without a prep race on dirt.
“I’ve talked to (owners Mace and Samantha Siegel) about it, and I just told them that I always preferred not to ship because you can kind of keep a horse a little bit fresher,” he said. “Then, if it came down to it I’d just train him at Churchill for a month leading up to (the Breeders’ Cup). I did that when I ran in the Derby, I just took my horses straight there and let them acclimate to the track and I think it takes about a month to make it a home court-type of deal.
“Our plan would be, if things are going well, we’ll take him there a month before the race and train him over that race track and he’ll get used to it that way.”
Ellis has never won a Breeders’ Cup race, but if Rail Trip returns and runs like he did at 4, he’s a definite threat.