Big-time races for fillies and mares and marathons for grass stayers usually have zero impact in the countdown to the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). There was, nevertheless, a million-dollar ring to both the $200,000 Santa Maria Handicap (gr. I) on Feb. 18 and the $200,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT) the day before.
By the time the weekend was in the books and the results began to sink in, the only thing anyone knew for sure was there really is nothing for sure. Just ask the backers left moaning and groaning after going down with 3-5 Surfside in the Santa Maria. The catcalls and hecklers were hardly a ringing endorsement for the champion filly and her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, who had penciled in a run at the boys in the 10-furlong Big 'Cap 13 days hence.
Any hope of taking on Tiznow and company went up in smoke on the far turn of the Santa Maria, when the daughter of Seattle Slew spit the bit and jockey Pat Day tenderly eased off the pedal. They would end up finishing last.
Up ahead of the struggling Surfside, though, the Santa Maria was reaching a dramatic finale. A trio of top-flight mares--all spoilers in this particular race--would hit the wire in knot. The decision went to Gary Tanaka's Lovellon, an Argentine 5-year-old trained by the master of past Marias and Margaritas, Ron McAnally. It should be no surprise that the man behind such sensations as Bayakoa and Paseana should produce yet another South American star, just in time for the upcoming Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I). Lovellon may turn out to be the one to fill the mold.
The daughter of Potrillon made just two starts for McAnally last summer, and neither provided any inspiration. A subsequent hip injury closed the door on her 4-year-old year, but when Lovellon nearly took down the red-hot Feverish in her January comeback, McAnally knew he had his hands on a jewel.
Still, the railbirds had Surfside up on a pedestal, despite her past Santa Anita efforts that can best be described as less-than-stellar. She ran nowhere near her odds.
"I never had any horse today," sighed Day. "The only thing I can come up with is she just obviously doesn't like this racetrack. She trains well over the track in the mornings, but she's just not showing up in the afternoons."
With Feverish and Critikola modestly supported at the windows as well, Lovellon got away at 8-1. But her price was nothing compared to the smile creasing the face of McAnally, who practically laughed out loud at the sight of Feverish and Surfside arguing through fractions of :22.90 and :46.13.
By the time the front pair had made the far turn--en route to six furlongs in 1:10.74--Day knew Surfside was done. "I tapped her on the shoulder," he said. "There was nothing there. She just wouldn't go on."
Gary Stevens, meanwhile, aboard Lovellon for just the second time, had kept her quiet as the leaders motored down the backstretch. When Surfside hoisted the white flag midway on the bend, Lovellon rolled up along the rail, launching a swift attack on Feverish.
With a quarter-mile to go, Lovellon looked like she'd win for sheer thrills. Instead, she needed the whole stretch to put away the dogged Feverish.
"Today maybe the track was a little firm for her underneath," said Feverish's jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye. "She was trying to get out pretty bad. The last part it just got to stinging her too much."
A daughter of Pirate's Bounty trained by Dan Hendricks, 6-year-old Feverish has the looks to kill and the fight of a wolverine--and tender feet, as well. Because of the lingering threat of showers, track superintendent Steve Wood applied a firm seal to the course the night before the Santa Maria. The inside lanes were packed solid, creating a fast base that appeared to have been too much for Feverish to take.
Still, she was there till the last desperate yards, when Lovellon finally stuck her head in front for good. The margin was a neck at the end. Critikola, also an Argentine-bred, from the Bill Spawr barn, ran big to finish third, just three-quarters of a length behind Feverish. Miss of Wales was fourth, with Surfside eight lengths back of the winner. The final time was 1:43.37.
While the Santa Maria left Lukas and Day pondering over Surfside's next move, Lovellon and Feverish are giving the Riboletta-less distaff division some needed spark. At this point, there's no telling how good Lovellon might be. Feverish, dependable as the daylight, has never been better. And Critikola's not that far behind either of them.
Look for them to clash again in the $300,000 Santa Margarita on March 10. It's one you won't want to miss. San Luis Lux
Surfside's elimination from the Big 'Cap picture wasn't the only big story over the weekend. The one reason that prompted a whole mass to show up for the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT) on Feb. 17 was the fact one horse didn't.
Local turf runners have been sleeping with one eye open of late, dreading their next encounter with the monster of their nightmares, Bienamado. But a surprising announcement revealing that the son of Bien Bien would forgo the San Luis Obispo for a shot at the Santa Anita Handicap threw the door open for those otherwise seeking softer spots.
Bienamado or no Bienamado, they still never got a chance, thanks to a former claimer named Persianlux and budding star Tyler Baze.
There was no reason to think Persianlux would have much to say about the outcome of the San Luis Obispo. His record since arriving from France in mid-1999 was unsteady at best, and as recently as November the 5-year-old son of Persian Bold had seemingly topped out at the $50,000 claiming level.
But it was that very race at Oak Tree that had trainer Wally Dollase exuding confidence. "He had a mile and a half here in 2:25 and one," Dollase said. "Nobody even came close to that. He won by six, and if he could repeat that race, he's got to be right there."
As it was, no one else was even close. Persianlux is a free-running sort who doesn't take kindly to others. "He's not a people horse," said Dollase's wife, Cincy. "He doesn't even like you to pet him." Persianlux broke into a smooth gallop, and Baze, who rides with a confidence beyond his youth, put the gelding on autopilot and enjoyed the view.
They were walking early--:25.43, :49.55, and 1:14.04--with Baze and Persianlux never feeling a trace of pressure. After a mile in 1:39.53, the rest started to close in.
There were some tense moments heading into the far turn. Just as Persianlux banked into the curve, Delahoussaye made a dash to his inside with Falcon Flight. It was too close for comfort, and Falcon Flight was pinched hard, effectively halting his momemtum.
Simultaneously, Persianlux took a deep breath and then he took off. The rest had no answer. Covering the final half in just over :48, Persianlux was home by five at the wire in a respectable 2:27.70. Devon Deputy, trained by Bobby Frankel, emerged for second, a length ahead of the recovered Falcon Flight. Northern Quest, the 8-5 choice, was a length back in fourth. An inquiry into the Falcon Flight incident yielded nothing.
The root of Persianlux's inconsistency, it turns out, were ulcers, which are now under control. Despite the $57.20 payoff, Dollase knew Persianlux was sitting on a big race--and always had been.
"He's got the talent," the trainer said. "The best thing about this horse is his respiratory system, his air. You gallop him a mile and a half and he comes back and his nostrils aren't even quivering."
Consequently, owners Randy Lowe, Gary Margolis, and Horizon Stable are already looking ahead to March 17, when Persianlux will shoot for the $250,000 San Luis Rey Handicap (gr. IIT). He'll get his 12 furlongs again. The others will get a chance to catch him.
"Pace makes the race," Dollase said. "It's the old expression, you know. That was easy for him, and he had gas left."