Colonel John , winner of the Travers Sakes (gr. I) last summer, makes his 2009 debut as the slight choice in a diverse 14-horse field for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 7.
The biggest surprise as entries were taken March 4 was that Tiago, one of the leading contenders for this year's Big 'Cap, was not entered. Still, the race shapes up as the most contentious in many years.
Tiago, who would have been the richest runner in the field with earnings of $2.3 million, was held out at the last minute after trainer John Shirreffs’ wife and stable manager, Dottie, reported that the third-place finisher in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) had “backed off his feed” in recent days and was not 100%.
The 72nd Big 'Cap heads a stakes card that includes two other grade I races -- the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, featuring 2008 juvenile fillies champion Stardom Bound, and the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap on the turf. The local weather forecast calls for sunny skies and a high near 70 degrees.
Colonel John is one of six grade or group I winners in the field for the Big 'Cap, the track's signature 1 1/4-mile Pro-Ride event. He is joined by Zambezi Sun, Monba, Einstein , Court Vision and Champs Elysees. In addition, the line-up includes recent Santa Anita grade II victors Cowboy Cal and Magnum.
The oddsmaker views this renewal as being so competitive that morning line favorite is Colonel John at 9-2. Four others are listed no higher than 6-1. One of those, Einstein, will carry high weight of 121 pounds, two more than Colonel John. Ten of the entrants are within five pounds of the top weight.
Trained by Eoin Harty for WinStar Farm, Colonel John has not been to the post since a fourth-place finish in Santa Anita's Malibu Stakes (gr. I) Dec. 26. The 4-year-old son of Tiznow won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) last year as well as the Sham Stakes (gr. III). He finished sixth in last fall Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and will be seeking his first win since taking the Travers in heart-pounding fashion by a nose over Mambo in Seattle last August. The bay colt owns a 5-2-1 record in 11 starts with earnings of $1,483,830.
Garrett Gomez, who was aboard Colonel John in the Travers, has the mount and they will break from post 5. The Colonel has been working swiftly for his return.
The 7-year-old Einstein will be making his West Coast debut and his first start over a synthetic surface. Trainer Helen Pitts-Blassi thinks the Brazilian-bred Spend a Buck bay’s fondness for turf will translate well to Pro-Ride.
“He’s doing well. He’s really settled in nicely,” said Pitts, who trains Einstein for Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr.'s Midnight Cry Stable. “He’s handled the track fine, and seems to be going good. We’ve had great weather, and he’s adapted very well.”
Still, Pitts said, she was surprised that her charge was made the top weight.
“He’s only ever trained on it while he’s been here, and maybe four other days in Chicago (Arlington Park), in his life. I think he likes it. He’s working great and seems to be handling it fine. Running on synthetic is a whole new angle, but we hope it’s a good angle.”
Victory in the Big ’Cap would push Einstein’s bankroll over the $2 million mark. With nine wins, three seconds, and two thirds from 23 starts, he has earned $1,678,020.
Julien Leparoux rides Einstein, who has won three grade I races on turf, from post 8. Leparoux was aboard when Einstein took the Clark Handicap (gr. II) on dirt at Churchill Downs last November and when he ran second to Horse of the Year Curlin in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill last June. A versatile runner, Einstein likes to track the early pace, but he has won from far back and while going wire-to-wire.
Cowboy Cal drew a 120-pound weight assignment while seeking his third straight graded stakes win at the meet. The 4-year-old Giants Causeway colt captured the San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) in his only prior start against older horses Jan. 10 and returned a month later to take the Strub Stakes (gr. II) for 4-year-olds. Trained by Todd Pletcher for owners and breeders Robert and Janice McNair, Cowboy Cal has posted a 6-3-0 record in 11 starts for earnings of $747,708. John Velazquez rides the morning line 5-1 chance from post 2. Cowboy Cal figures to help ensure an honest pace.
The much-traveled Court Vision, assigned 119 pounds, won the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) on turf Nov. 30 at Hollywood Park. The millionaire 4-year-old Gulch colt, trained by Bill Mott for IEAH Stables and WinStar Farm, will have Ramon Dominguez in the saddle as he attempts to build on his consistent mark of 5-2-3 in 13 races. Court Vision has started once since the Hollywood Derby, finishing third in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT) Feb. 1.
Bobby Frankel sends out both Champs Elysees, who ran third in last year's Santa Anita, and Zambezi Sun for Juddmonte Farms. Both have done their best running on turf.
Champs Elysees, who has earned $1,354,761 with five wins in 22 starts, has raced on synthetics three times previously, with his best showing behind Heatseeker and Go Between by 3 1/2 lengths in last year’s renewal. Jose Valdivia Jr., who rode the 6-year-old British-bred son of Danehill when victorious in the Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IT) Dec. 6, will be back aboard while weighted at 118 pounds.
Zambezi Sun, a group I winner on turf in France, was rank and ultimately tired in his United States debut when finishing sixth as the odds-on favorite in the San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT) at 1 1/2 miles on turf Feb. 22. That was his first start since running 15th in the Qatar Prix d' l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) Oct. 5. The 5-year-old has raced exclusively on grass. He will be ridden by Victor Espinoza and was weighted at 116 pounds.
The 8-year-old Magnum won the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) at odds of 16-1 Feb. 8 after sitting just off the dawdling pace. It was his first victory in nine starts and came in his second race as a gelding, which brought long-awaited relief from the discomfort of an undescended testicle. The Argentine-bred, trained by Darrell Vienna for Herrick Racing, carries 116 pounds. Joel Rosario has the mount.
Also weighted at 116 pounds are Matto Mondo, a Chilean-bred import who has won his last two starts, including the off-the-turf Thunder Road Handicap (gr. III) for trainer Richard Mandella Feb. 7, and British-import Dansant, who won five of eight starts over synthetics in England for trainer Gerard Butler.
A multiple grade I winner in his native country, Matto Mondo has blossomed in his last two starts at Santa Anita. Rafael Bejarano, who is challenging Gomez in Santa Anita’s riders’ race, takes the reins atop Matto Mondo.
Pletcher has a second entrant in Monba, who will be making just his third start since winning the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) on Keeneland's Polytrack surface April 12. The gray son of Maria's Mon ran last of 20 in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), then was sidelined for more than eight months before returning with a third-place finish in the Thunder Road. Edgar Prado regains the mount.
Strub runner-up Blue Exit, Cause, Heroi Do Bafra and Stream Cat complete the bulky field.
$1,000,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 4:37 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Matto Mondo (CHI), 116, Rafael Bejarano, 6/1
2. Cowboy Cal (KY), 120, John R. Velazquez, 5/1
3. Heroi Do Bafra (BRZ), 111, Michael C. Baze, 30/1
4. Monba (KY), 114, Edgar S. Prado, 15/1
5. Colonel John (KY), 119, Garrett K. Gomez, 9/2
6. Magnum (ARG), 116, Joel Rosario, 12/1
7. Blue Exit (KY), 115, Robby Albarado, 12/1
8. Einstein (BRZ), 121, Julien R. Leparoux, 6/1
9. Dansant (GB), 116, Tyler Baze, 20/1
10. Cause (KY), 110, Jon K. Court, 30/1
11. Court Vision (KY), 119, Ramon A. Dominguez, 6/1
12. Zambezi Sun (GB), 116, Victor Espinoza, 12/1
13. Champs Elysees (GB), 118, Jose Valdivia, Jr., 12/1
14. Stream Cat (KY), 114, Alex O. Solis, 20/1