Santa Anita Race Report: From Claimer to Grade II Winner

Published in Jan. 13 issue of The Blood-Horse
It was a priceless moment of ecstasy. Freedom Crest, the erstwhile claimer and pride of the six-horse Richard Baltas stable, had just wrestled the lead from Bosque Redondo in the $200,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II). Now, with just over a furlong to run, the game was over.

But the real action was in the stands. His composure long lost, Baltas had broken into a windsprint, a spirited dash down the aisle interrupted only by an occasional glance at the track, a check to make sure his dream hadn't ended.

It was poetry in parallel motion, horse and trainer matching strides graced with power, glory, and elation. And as Freedom Crest powered past the finish, three lengths clear and sights set firmly on the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Baltas raised his arms in out-and-out delight. It was Rocky climbing the steps in Philadelphia. It was Jim Valvano in a Final Four frenzy. And it was a reminder that in a game dominated by blue-bloods and endless bank accounts, glory can still shine on even the most unlikely of heroes.

It's that conviction that has put Baltas and Freedom Crest centerstage.

"There's always been a horse that can defy the odds, and the little guy does have a chance," Baltas said, the euphoria of the San Pasqual clinging to each word. "That's what I believe."

There were no grandiose expectations, Baltas admits, when he claimed Freedom Crest for $32,000 out of a maiden race a year and a half ago. The son of To Freedom was gelded shortly after the claim, but when he needed five more shots to break his maiden, there really was no reason to expect anything special.

"It took me a while to figure him out," admitted Baltas, who credits the decision to pull the blinkers as a major turning point. And when Baltas decided to send Freedom Crest long last spring, the muscular gelding really began to make some noise.

Nevertheless, Freedom Crest had merely run through his allowance conditions when the San Pasqual came up. In the span of 1:41.94, however--the time it took him to dust the field in the San Pasqual--Freedom Crest became a household name, breathing new life into the depleted division of local handicap stars.

Freedom Crest was eager from the break, and new rider Gary Stevens kept him in the hunt early, three-wide and right on 5-2 favorite Bosque Redondo. Purely Cozzene, trying the dirt for a change, led them through a half in :47.51, but when Bosque Redondo and Freedom Crest began a simultaneous move on the far turn, the Cozzene colt was in deep water.

This left Bosque Redondo and Freedom Crest in familiar territory. They first met back at Oak Tree, when Bosque Redondo, owned by breeders Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan, beat Freedom Crest going a mile. The tables were turned a few weeks later, as Freedom Crest nailed the 4-year-old Mane Minister colt in a Hollywood Park allowance race.

Both races were close, but Bosque Redondo's fight wasn't good enough this time. Freedom Crest bulled ahead nearing the eighth pole, drawing off for a powerful win. Sultry Substitute showed up late to grab third. The rest were pretty much strung out.

Freedom Crest is the first horse Baltas claimed for owners Calvin Nguyen, Barbara Choi, and Alex Wong. Baltas, formerly an assistant to trainers Richard Mandella and Tom Skiffington, is inclined to sit out the Feb. 4 San Antonio Handicap (gr. II), preferring instead to keep Freedom Crest on a slow burn till the Big 'Cap arrives March 3. Regardless of where the 5-year-old shows up next, Baltas will be right there with him, living his dream with every single step.

"He's a professional racehorse now," he said. "I'm just lucky to have him."

CALLING ALL SOPHOMORES

The West Coast group of 3-year-old fillies has been rocked by attrition as well. A division once bolstered by the likes of Notable Career, Euro Empire, Cindy's Hero, and I Believe in You has diminished to a shadow of its recent promise. Perhaps Collect Call can take up the slack and polish things up.

The daughter of Meadowlake took a big step in the right direction Jan. 6 in the $109,300 Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III) at 1 1/16 miles. Owned by Rod Rodriguez, Collect Call tracked pacesetter Eminent to the far turn, then busted through late under Alex Solis to beat Irguns Angel by 1 1/4 lengths.

Trainer Christopher Paasch will now mull over whether Collect Call will scale back to a mile for the Feb. 10 Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) or simply wait for the 8 1/2-furlong Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) a month later. At this point, there doesn't look like much to deal with in either spot.

AT THE WIRE

If Collect Call heads for the Las Virgenes, she'll run into Flute, a daughter of Seattle Slew who scored impressively going a mile on Jan. 4. Owned and bred by Juddmonte Farms, Flute comes from the Bobby Frankel stable. Look for good things as well from runner-up Tomorrows Angel, a homebred Unbridled's Song filly owned by Donald and Mary Zuckerman and trained by Bob Baffert... A six-furlong maiden heat on Jan. 6 gave us a quick pair to watch for. D'Wildcat (by Forest Wildcat) and Crafty C.T. (by Crafty Prospector) buried the others, finishing just one length apart in 1:08.76. D'Wildcat, owned by David Shimmon's Fog City Stable, comes from the Bob Hess Jr. barn and was the $600,000 sale topper at last year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s March select sale of 2-year-olds in training, while Howard Zucker trains Crafty C.T. for owner C.T. Grether...There isn't a hotter horse on the grounds right now than 7-year-old El Cielo. The El Prado gelding got his first shot at two turns on the turf Jan. 4 and was downright devastating, hammering an all-star cast with a superb mile in 1:33.32. Trainer Craig Dollase will now take a serious look at the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (gr. IIT) on March 3. Hawksley Hill, making his first start in more than 13 months, was a willing second in his comeback... It was almost 11 years ago that Eddie Delahoussaye and Exemplary Leader came thundering down the Santa Anita turf, blasting past Bill Shoemaker and Patchy Groundfog to take The Legend's Last Ride. On Jan. 6, Delahoussaye and Jamaican Rum, a 3-year-old son of Exemplary Leader, skirted the rail to edge favorite Startac by a neck in the one-mile Hill Rise Stakes on grass. Jim Cassidy trains the homebred colt for Southern Nevada Racing Stables...Trainer Bill Spawr kicked off the Jan. 3 card with three straight seconds. He got the one that counted, though, as the Argentinean newcomer Potrimagic came up big in the one-mile Flying Julia Stakes. The 5-year-old Potrillazo mare is owned by Florida Equine Research... Sky Jack, the powerhouse winner of December's Native Diver Handicap (gr. III), is out temporarily after a bone chip was detected in his right knee, according to trainer Doug O'Neill.... Kent Desormeaux's triple on San Pasqual day put his career total at 3,998, while Martin Pedroza is only five away from his 2,000th winner.

(Chart, Equibase)

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