Santa Margarita: A race to mark on your calendars

One of the more attractive filly and mare races in quite some time could take place at Santa Anita on March 12 in the $300,000 Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes.

Won last year by 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, the Santa Margarita, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race, figures to draw the following standout distaffers:

* Switch — Trained by John Sadler, the 4-year-old filly has shown the ability to win around one or two turns. She finished second in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs, but is being pointed toward the 2011 Ladies’ Classic. She’s known as the filly who almost upset Zenyatta in the Lady’s Secret Stakes during the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meet.

* Always a Princess — Leave her alone on the front end, and it’s virtually impossible to catch this Bob Baffert-trained filly, who went gate to wire to win the $150,000 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 13. She’d be the speed of the speed in the race if she goes.

* Blind Luck — Thought by many to be the second best female race horse in America last year behind only Zenyatta, the 4-year-old filly has found a pace problem of late. Her two losses this year came in races where she had no pace to run at over Santa Anita’s speed-favoring main dirt track. She’d bring a four-race losing streak into the Santa Margarita if she runs, but make no mistake about it, Blind Luck is a very talented filly.

* St Trinians — Like Switch, this 5-year-old mare almost slayed Zenyatta in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, but then she got an extended break because of body soreness and returned to finish third behind Vision in Gold and Zardana in the $150,000 Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 12. It was a race that figures to set her up well for the Santa Margarita.

If all four of the aforementioned fillies and mares run, it figures to be one heck of a Santa Margarita.

West could be lacking in real Derby contenders

There are 83 days until the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the West Coast could be lacking a strong contender for the Run for the Roses after its two top candidates — Tapizar and Comma to the Top — both got knocked off Saturday in California.

But it’s not just that they both lost, it’s how they lost. Neither colt finished in the top three in their respective Derby prep. Right now, a little less than three months from the Derby, there are no Lookin At Luckys, Pioneerof the Niles or Brother Dereks out west.

Tapizar, the 1-5 favorite, was rank the whole way in the $250,000 Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita and faded to fifth after looking so impressive in a 4 1/4-length victory in the Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 15.

Comma to the Top, gate-to-wire winner of the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 17, rated off the lead in the $200,000 Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and never seriously threatened, finishing fourth in the 1 1/8-mile race.

The two winners, Anthony’s Cross in the Lewis and Silver Medallion in the El Camino Real, might be nice colts, but they’re unlikely to attract much Future Book action until they follow up Saturday’s victories with more of the same.

The big winner nationally Saturday was Brethren, a half-brother to 2010 Derby winner Super Saver who toyed with the field in the $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs en route to a four-length victory. He might not have beaten much, but it was the way he defeated his nine rivals that made the victory so impressive.

But all is not lost out west just yet.

The talented Jaycito, winner of the Norfolk Stakes in October before a much-troubled seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile a month later, is scheduled to make his sophomore debut Feb. 20 at Santa Anita in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes. If he comes back as good as he was at 2 and shows any improvement, he’s the real deal.

And there are other talented 3-year-olds on the West Coast, including Astrology, Runflatout, The Factor, Clubhouse Ride and Indian Winter, to name a few. There is still enough time for one or more of them to step forward, but it’s getting to the point now where it’s time for the true contenders to separate themselves from the pretenders.

Two of those colts might be Anthony’s Cross and Silver Medallion, but color me skeptical until I see more. Also, don’t totally write off Tapizar and Comma to the Top off one poor start, especially with how unpredictable these 3-year-olds can be early in the year.

My latest Kentucky Derby rankings:

1. Uncle Mo — Only question with this unbeaten colt is the Derby distance
2. To Honor and Serve — Bernardini colt real threat to give Mott first Derby victory
3. Santiva — Slated to debut this year in Risen Star (Feb. 19) or Fountain of Youth (Feb. 26)
4. Astrology — Yet to debut this year for Asmussen, but he looked solid at 2
5. Jaycito — Has shown as much talent as any 3-year-old out there
6. Brethren — Super Saver’s baby brother might just be the real deal
7. Dialed In — Looked solid in the Holy Bull, but let’s see another one
8. The Factor — Might just be a speed ball, but want to see what he does in San Vicente
9. Tapizar — Deserves another shot after flopping as 1-5 favorite in Robert Lewis Stakes
10. Runflatout — Everything Sadler touches is turning to gold so far in 2011

Let me know who you like.

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Clock is ticking on California horse racing

The clock is ticking on the future of horse racing, particularly in California, where the lack of leadership and new ideas is driving a great sport to ruins.

First there were the synthetic surfaces, mandated by the California Horse Racing Board in 2007. They were supposed to be maintenance free, lead to bigger fields and attract trainers from all over the country.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Now we have the advance deposit wagering companies and their sweet deals, a lack of rebates in California that most bettors from around the rest of the country receive and the terrible decision to raise takeout rates on exotic wagers that went into effect on opening day at Santa Anita.

We were told the increase in takeout would lead to bigger purses and larger field sizes, which in turn would lead to increased handle.

Well, I guess one out of three isn’t bad when you’re Albert Pujols, but it’s a terrible percentage when trying to fix the problems that ail horse racing. And who knows how long the bigger purses will be around at Santa Anita if the current numbers continue.

Larger field sizes?

Well, going into Thursday’s eight-race card at Santa Anita, field size was down from 8.01 horses per race a year ago to 7.73 through the first 28 days of the meet. Yep, a lot of six- and seven-horse fields even though we’re back to dirt now at Santa Anita.

Oh, and the increased handle?

Santa Anita’s overall handle was down $16.9 million, or 8.2 percent, through Sunday, according to figures I’ve received. Now those aren’t using the comparable dates that track officials like to use, i.e. Strub day 2010 compared to Strub day 2011, etc., but the numbers aren’t pretty no matter how you spin them.

According to my sources, the biggest losers in the handle game have been exactas, trifectas and pick threes, all of which were part of the increase in takeout.

Santa Anita drew a good crowd of more than 17,000 on Strub day this year, yet on-track handle was down, according to a Santa Anita official, despite the fact there were about 6,000 more fans on track than in 2010.

It’s painfully obvious something needs to be done. No one who holds a high position in the industry wants to admit it, but the horseplayers’ boycott because of the increased takeout has had an effect. How much, no one knows for sure, but it’s hurt business at a time when horse racing didn’t need the hit.

So who’s fault is it? Who’s to blame for the sport being in such disarray?

Well, it’s not such an easy answer, and there is no doubt the economy has played a big part in the slump. Very few businesses have managed to avoid declining numbers the past three years.

But it’s also true the sport’s decision makers, the CHRB and Thoroughbred Owners of California, groups that are supposed to lead the way toward sound decisions and prosperity, have let the industry down in a huge way.

Go out to Santa Anita on any Thursday or Friday now and you might see more people if you visited Calico Ghost Town.

“The current state we’re in is definitely scary, and I tend to be programmed to be on the optimistic side,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “Realistically, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see (the problems). You go out there on Thursdays and Fridays and you basically know everyone by first name in the facility. And then you’re seeing some days the handle is under a million dollars on track.

“I just keep hoping and praying that they get some creative (guy), like a Lee Iacocca type of guy, to figure out a way. How you can’t sell legalized gambling, the chance to socialize, cocktails, beautiful scenery … how you can’t sell that is beyond me.”

Lee Iacocca?

Heck, I’d settle for someone with just two or three good ideas that would lift this sport up toward a revival that we may never see.

Here’s a great example of the leadership we’re dealing with in California: A group that’s been around since 2007, is 1,800 strong nationwide and calls itself the Horseplayers Assocation of North America, would like to sit down with members of the CHRB and TOC and lay out some ideas. But the two groups want nothing to do with HANA as far as face-to-face meetings involving decision makers.

Well excuse me, but if I was making decisions about a sport that was going down the tubes quicker than the final quarter miles Zenyatta used to run, I’d want to sit down with ANYBODY and exchange ideas in hopes that something positive would come out of the meeting. That’s how much trouble the sport of horse racing is in.

I e-mailed the CHRB last month and asked why they would not sit down with members of HANA. Here’s the reply I received from Executive Director Kirk Breed:

“The California Horse Racing Board appreciates input from HANA and other fans. In fact, the CHRB has an obligation to listen to the public at large. At the same time, we understand that at least one race track has met with HANA and will continue to do so. The CHRB encourages such dialogue.”

It’s called passing the buck. Are Breed, CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool and the six commissioners too good to sit down and meet with HANA president Jeff Platt and others from the organization themselves and hear their ideas?

I also sent a similar e-mail to TOC chairman Arnold Zetcher, who by the way is stepping down from his post effective next Wednesday, and received the following reply from TOC executive vice president Guy Lamothe: “TOC is open to meeting with parties that would like to discuss positive-minded suggestions for the betterment of horse racing.”

In his e-mail, Lamothe also added the TOC had already met with HANA representatives in October.

Well, yes and no. Some members of the TOC had held a teleconference with members of HANA, but it was hardly the sitdown between decision makers that HANA has been requesting for quite a while now. And maybe the TOC doesn’t consider instituting rebates for California bettors and lowering the takeout to be “positive-minded suggestions.”

Maybe that’s a big part of the problem right there. Perhaps some organizations want it all one way and are unwilling to compromise for the good of the sport.

“Everything the owners have wanted, the TOC has given to them. I don’t remember a thing the horse players wanted that the TOC’s given to them,” said Roger Way, HANA’s California representative. “We don’t want to make any enemies. We just want to see changes.”

But how can there be changes when the CHRB and TOC refuse to even meet with HANA members? What are they afraid of? At this stage, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. The more ideas thrown on the table, the better.

High-ranking officials from Santa Anita and Del Mar met separately with HANA a few weeks ago, and by all accounts the get-togethers went well. But again, the TOC refused to send one of their decision makers, instead choosing to have Aaron Vercruysse, hired recently to advise the horsemen on betting matters, attend the meeting and report back to them.

The California Thoroughbred Trainers are willing to sit down with HANA. Again, why won’t the CHRB and TOC do the exact same thing?

Rescinding the increase in takeout would not in itself right horse racing’s sinking ship, but it would be a start. It likely won’t happen, though, until Santa Anita is forced to cut its overnight purses, an announcement that could be coming soon if the handle doesn’t improve.

And how about those larger fields we were promised? There was a time when there were 4,000 horses stabled between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. The number is now down to about 2,400, but Way believes that’s still enough horses to haver fuller fields than we see now.

“Other places have 1,500 horses and they jam the entry box,” Way said. “Out here, horses run once every three blue moons.”

Let’s talk about it. Let’s exchange some ideas. Let’s get these parties together, the powers that be, and work toward a solution. Forget the inflammatory mass e-mails that are sent out daily that only serve to further the bad blood. Let’s find a way to get the ADWs to contribute to higher purses.

We need ideas, we need meetings, and we need them now.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Secretariat’s owner a breath of fresh air

Penny Chenery, who owned the great Secretariat, is 89 years old going on 25. She was a breath of fresh air Saturday at Santa Anita when her and Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, spent about two hours signing selected prints of “Racing Royalty: Secretariat and Zenyatta” in the East Paddock Gardens.

Chenery, who lives in Colorado, was in town to present the Mosses with the inaugural Secretariat Vox Populi (Voice of the People) Award, which will be given annually to the horse that generates the most interest in thoroughbred racing in a given year.

This past year, that horse happened to be Zenyatta, who was named 2010 Horse of the Year last month at the Eclipse Awards ceremony in Miami Beach and will soon be bred to Bernardini.

Chenery, portrayed by actress Diane Lane in the recent Disney movie, “Secretariat,” handed out the Secretariat Vox Populi Award to the Mosses in the winner’s circle following the sixth race.

Earlier, she spoke to the media about Secretariat’s awesome 31-length Belmont Stakes victory in 1973, which made “Big Red” the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.

“The week before the Belmont was hell week,” she recalled. “We were on three magazine covers, there were reporters behind every bush. I loved it, but it certainly was exhausting.

“When Secretariat turned for home and opened up that huge margin, and at the end I’m making like (New York) Mayor LaGuardia throwing my arms in the air. Well, that was as much relief as celebration.”

Chenery also recalled when she was at Hollywood Park for last fall’s running of the Lady’s Secret Stakes during the Oak Tree meet and saw Zenyatta score the final victory of her spectacular career.

“I was in (Zenyatta’s) presence, and that’s just the way I felt,” she said. “Being that she’s so in command of her environment, when I was presenting the trophy, she walked toward me and she looked me up and down and sorta said, ‘Hmmm, I guess you can be in my presence.’

“She’s just a magnificent creature.”

Asked if fans’ reaction was any different during Secretariat’s day compared to the hoopla surrounding Zenyatta, Chenery said no.

“Fans are fans,” she said. “They love horses and they love us (owners) because of the horses. There is just so much kindness, so much goodwill. We’ve been signing for I don’t know how long, and my back hurts. But I would love to keep signing just to experience the good vibes they give us.”

Jerry Moss said Secretariat’s career came before he got involved in horse racing, but he said he heard about Big Red and saw all the magazine covers. He saw how powerful the horse was and how much he was loved by the fans.

Chenery said there was nothing quite like the thrill of victory.

“Seeing your colors come across the finish line first is a thrill, no matter what the level,” she said. “It’s what you hope for for that horse that day. (Racing) is a little richer, there’s more money (now), but the basic thrill is still there, ‘I did it! My team did it! My horse did it!’ They can’t take that away from you.”

They also can’t take away the thrills both horses gave the many fans who were blessed enough to have seen both run.

They’re talking Super Bowl out at Santa Anita

Santa Anita publicity official Ed Golden solicited the following opinions from jockeys, trainers, jockey agents and Daily Racing Form writers regarding Super Bowl XLV:

BARRY ABRAMS: “Green Bay. You have to go with any team that wins three playoff games on the road.”

STEVE ANDERSEN: “Green Bay. Their running defense is very good.”

RON ANDERSON: “Packers.”

BOB BAFFERT: “Green Bay. I was watching NFL Tonight and they all gave the edge to Green Bay.”

BRIAN BEACH: “The Packers. I have relatives in Wisconsin.”

DAVID BERNSTEIN: “Green Bay in a close one.”

BRICE BLANC (a native of Lyon, France): “I want Boston to win.”

JIM CASSIDY: “I can’t believe Pittsburgh is a dog. You have to take the points.”

VLADIMIR CERIN: “Pittsburgh in a landslide.”

VINCE DEGREGORY: “Pittsburgh. They’ve been there before.”

EDDIE DELAHOUSSAYE: “The Steelers. Take the underdog.”

RON EBANKS: “Pittsburgh.”

JERRY FANNING: “Green Bay. The team I like got beat (the Jets).”

JOE FERRER: “I like Pittsburgh plus two. Green Bay has no running game.”

BRAD FREE: “Green Bay, 23-17.”

MARK GLATT: “I’d like to see Green Bay win, but Pittsburgh has the experience.”

GARRETT GOMEZ: “Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger.”

ERIC GUILLOT: “Pittsburgh. They’re the better team.”

JORGE GUITERREZ: “Green Bay. I’m a Vikings’ fan and they’re in the same division.”

DAN HENDRICKS: “It should be a good defensive game and a real tight game. I’m taking over and Green Bay.”

JERRY HOLLENDORFER: “Pittsburgh. I think they’re the best team and they’ve been there before and won it twice.”

KURT HOOVER: “Under.”

BOB IKE: “I’m going with my gut: Pittsburgh. But my Super Bowl is in the first race with Working At Night. If she can win for Summit Racing and our partners, I really don’t care who wins the game.”

MARTY JONES: “I’m rooting for Green Bay.”

STEVE KNAPP: “Green Bay.”

TOM KNUST: “Green Bay.”

ERIC KRULJAC: “I’m shocked that Pittsburgh is an underdog, but I can’t stand Pittsburgh, so Green Bay.”

CRAIG LEWIS: “Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. But more important, we’re both alumni from the same university–California.”

MIKE MACHOWSKY: “Green Bay. It seems like Pittsburgh’s just there to party. I see those guys on TMZ all the time.”

RICHARD MANDELLA: “Green Bay.”

RON MCANALLY: “Green Bay is the better team.”

CHRIS MCCARRON: “I’m rooting for Green Bay but I think Pittsburgh’s going to win.”

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: “Pittsburgh. I’m rooting for Hammer (Rick Hammerle). I hope it gets him to relax.”

MARK MOLINA: “Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers’ stats inside a dome are huge.”

BRANDON O’BRYAN: “The Steelers.”

CRAIG O’BRYAN: “Pittsburgh. Experience and their running back (Rashard Mendenhall).”

DENNIS O’NEILL: “I love Green Bay. They’re playing so good right now.”

DOUG O’NEILL: “Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger. It’s easy. All the pundits are picking Green Bay, so I’m going the opposite.”

BRAD PEGRAM: “Green Bay.”

JIM PEGRAM: “Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers will crush.”

TOM PROCTOR: “I don’t know. I’m not a big football fan. I like horse racing.”

JOHN SADLER: “I’m picking the Steelers. I don’t have a real rooting interest in either team. Just going with my head, I think the Steelers are a little bit better.”

JOHN SHIRREFFS: “Pittsburgh.”

RICHIE SILVERSTEIN: “Steelers. You gotta love the dog.”

CLIFF SISE JR.: “Pittsburgh.”

MIKE SMITH: “I hope Green Bay wins. My team didn’t make it (the Jets).”

BILL SPAWR: “Green Bay has too many weapons and a great defense.”

GARY STEVENS: “Green Bay is doing everything right. It should be a great game. Green Bay and under.”

GARY STUTE: “The Packers. Every one I know likes Pittsburgh, so I’m going the other way.”

MEL STUTE: “Green Bay. They’ve got the best colors.”

DAN WARD: “Pittsburgh. Their quarterback has experience in the Super Bowl and you can’t run on Pittsburgh.”

DON WARREN: “Pittsburgh and the points.”

GARY YOUNG: “Pittsburgh with the points and on the money line. They’ve got a bunch of players with Super Bowl experience. Green Bay has two.”

HOWARD ZUCKER: “Pittsburgh even up and with the points, and under.”