When it comes to Santa Anita's unique downhill turf course at about 6 1/2 furlongs, the current "horse for course" is El Cielo, who goes in Sunday's $100,000 Morvich Handicap (gr. IIIT) on closing day of the 2002 Oak Tree meeting.
The 8-year-old Craig Dollase-trained gelding has run 12 times on layout and won on nine of those occasions, finishing second twice. The only time he was off the board, on March 21, 1999, he lost his rider at the start of the race when he hopped and stumbled.
He set the course record of 1:11.46 in winning last year's Morvich under 123 pounds.
On Sunday, the Florida-bred son of El Prado seeks to defend his title. Jockey Jose Valdivia has every confidence the bay gelding will succeed, despite an impost of 121 pounds, a strong field of nine opponents, and a layoff of some nine months.
"He's a monster and he's a pleasure to ride," Valdivia said Friday morning. "He knows this course. I could probably ride him with my eyes covered and he'd go right through (the course), no problem. He runs well fresh and I know Craig (Dollase) always has him ready to roll."
El Cielo won on Nov. 6, 2000, after being idle for seven months, then won on Oct. 5, 2001, after an eight-month layoff. He has had two bullet workouts at his Hollywood Park headquarters, among his other drills as he prepared for the Morvich.
Valdivia is unconcerned about 121 pounds. "He broke the track record carrying 123 (in last year's Morvich)," Valdivia pointed out. "We're dropping weight (from that race), he's fresh, and like I say, Craig always has him ready to roll. He should be tough. He loves this course."
Valdivia is not bothered by El Cielo's layoff, either.
"They always give him time," Valdivia said, "especially when he's had a succession of races, and especially since he ran a mile in his last race (Jan.26). He just has his problems but they always give him the time (he needs to recover). He's a very durable horse, but you see he'll never run three or four races straight together. That would be very rare. He just runs so hard in his races, he deserves the time off."
El Cielo has a 13-3-1 record from 21 starts, with earnings of $674,375.
There's little doubt that Macward has a preference for the turf course as well. The 6-year-old gelded son of Sharp Victor has a 4-4-2 record from 17 starts over the unique layout, with earnings of $316,532.
"Sharp Victors sure like it," trainer Ian Jory said of the course. "We had a great rate in the spring (winning down the hill). Eighty percent of those horses were Sharp Victor horses. All his progeny love it. My horse is training great."
Overall, Macward has a 5-5-6 record from 35 starts, with earnings of $420,969.
Trainer Dean Greenman, meanwhile, has engaged Jerry Bailey to ride I Love Silver in the Morvich.
"I had (Gary) Stevens, and he's doing the movie ("Seabiscuit: An American Legend)," Greenman said. "I thought I had (Corey) Nakatani, because he rode him the time before that. He's riding Sarafan, who's prepping for the Japan Cup, so I needed a rider and Bailey was coming (to ride Tates Creek in the Las Palmas Handicap), so that's fine with me."
I Love Silver was fourth, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IIT) on Oct. 5. It was the first race in 10 months for the Kentucky-bred son of Silver Ghost.
"It was a good race for him," Greenman said. "A mile is OK for him, but he's done better going 6 1/2 or seven furlongs. " $100,000 Morvich Handicap (gr. IIIT), about 6 1/2 furlongs, 3 & up
PP., Horse, Jockey, Wgt.
1. El Cielo, Jose Valdivia, 121
2. Furtivo, David Flores, 114
3. I Love Silver, Jerry Bailey, 116
4. F J's Pace, Laffitt Pincay, 117
5. Is It True Mex, Felipe Martinez, 113
6. Sarafan, Corey Nakatani, 122
7. Macward, Alex Solis, 115
8. Lookn East, Victor Espinoza, 116
9. Kachamandi, Pat Valenzuela, 117
10. Master Belt, Tyler Baze, 114.