Bienamado leaned against the stall webbing, craning his neck down the shedrow. The sinews beneath his glowing coat were alluring, and there was no mistaking the urgent look cast by his white-rimmed eyes.
As the stalwart colt strained for something to chow down on, nowhere were there signs that just an hour earlier he had been stretched to the limits of class and stamina. There was no trace of fatigue, no wrung-out guise you might expect from an animal who had not only pulled down the $400,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) at about 1 3/4 miles, but did it fast. Faster than Cougar II or Exceller. Faster than John Henry, Kotashaan, or even his very own sire, Bien Bien. The small crowd gathered near his stall was simply awed.
"This horse is not tired at all," admired trainer Paco Gonzalez, his eyes carefully studying the chestnut a few feet away. "Look at his head, look...he looks pretty bright. Let's bring him out."
While Gonzalez gave Bienamado a few more rounds on the tow ring, the thought filling his mind was one of relief, a feeling which soothed the ugly memory of last month's experiment-turned-near-disaster.
The timing had been perfect -- and the distance prime -- for a shot at main track glory in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). Then Bienamado got slammed at the break and nearly plunged his coverboy mug into the dirt, and though he emerged unscathed -- "He came back to the barn like nothing, like he didn't even run," his trainer pointed out -- the long-term effects were potentially damaging.
"Oh yeah, they remember everything," explained Gonzalez. "They're too smart. Even in the morning when he gallops, if something happened and he spooked in a certain spot, he remembers the next day where he spooked. They're very smart."
So Gonzalez drew a line through the Big 'Cap, sent Bienamado to the gate for some mental reinforcement, and turned his attention back to the grass. The San Juan Capistrano on April 14 was business as usual, though Persianlux sure made him earn it.
Chris McCarron kept a lid on Bienamado as the race unfolded, while Persianlux, recent winner of the San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT), rocked along on a lonely lead. His six-furlong split of 1:09.64 spoke volumes, and though he'd done it under his own steam, the son of Persian Bold had cranked out a mile in 1:35.24 by the time he hit the backstretch. For the San Juan, these numbers were certain to seal his fate, and most -- including McCarron -- figured the former claimer would simply cave in when Bienamado finally came calling.
Bienamado finally went after Persianlux with three furlongs to run, but even with the big red beast to his outside, Tyler Baze still liked what he felt beneath him. He let out some rein, and Persianlux stood his ground, which made for a heart-pounding duel.
In a scene that dug up images of the 1993 running, when Kotashaan needed every inch of the distance to beat Bien Bien by a nose, Persianlux put up a commendable fight until deep stretch, where Bienamado gradually edged clear. They crossed the finish a half-length apart in 2:42.96, making for the fastest San Juan ever run at its present distance.
But the historical significance didn't stop at the clock. Bien Bien and Bienamado also became the first father-son team to win the San Juan Capistrano in 64 runnings. (After his harrowing defeat in '93, Bien Bien returned to take the San Juan the following year.) And their similarities, right down to style and shadowroll, are incredible.
Bien Bien, lean and laid-back, had looks that could kill. Bienamado, a tad more robust, is equally as striking. Both own local course records. Both can boast a slew of marquee stakes wins. When the inevitable question is put to him, even Gonzalez finds it hard to separate the two.
"Not much difference," he admitted. "The only difference I think is the size. Bienamado's bigger than Bien Bien. But everything else, they're pretty close -- the way they run close to the pace, very kind horses."
But while Bien Bien did show an affinity for dirt early on, he never had the nation's turf division at his mercy quite like his first-born does. Clearly, Bienamado is the best horse on North American grass. Save for a fourth in last August's Arlington Million (gr. IT), he has gone untouched on turf since Gonzalez took the reins for good back in late 1999.
Good health permitting, Bienamado will get a shot to redeem himself at Arlington this year. First, however, will be Hollywood's 1 1/4-mile Charles Whittingham Handicap (gr. IT) on June 10. If he streaks through the summer, owners John Toffan, Trudy McCaffery, and Robert Sangster have designs on either the Man o' War or Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (both gr. IT) in the fall, providing the perfect opportunity for Bienamado to familiarize himself with the Belmont layout.
"That's our mapped-out plan," Toffan said. "If we can stick to it, we'll be in good shape and have a fresh horse for the Breeders' Cup."
Which is exactly where they hope son can do daddy one better. Santa Astra
The all-around benefits of riding in Japan have Kent Desormeaux jazzed. For the first time in his career, his day-to-day grind will take a backseat to family and personal restoration. But there's no doubting what kind of prospects will occasionally lure him back home.
"Astra. I'll be back for Astra," Desormeaux said with zero hesitation. "She's certainly worth it at this point. She's as good as they can get."
Desormeaux got in some last-minute packing on April 14, unleashing the daughter of Theatrical for a stylish win in the $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap (gr. IIT).
Owned by the estate of the late Allen Paulson, Astra sounded her presence in the Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) last summer, but threw in a subsequent stinker that Simon Bray imputes to trainer error.
Tackling the 1 1/4-mile Santa Barbara after nine months on the bench is a tall order. Astra made it seem like child's play. Drafting behind Beautiful Noise to the far turn, Astra finally cut loose turning for home and left 'em for dead in the stretch. The final margin was three lengths. From the saddle, it was obvious the filly's freshening paid dividends.
"She's matured, definitely matured," Desormeaux said. "Mentally, she's a smarter horse. Before she wanted to think too much, you know, she wanted to be boss. She was like riding a pony today. Simon has done very well with her."
Now it's on to Hollywood, Astra's home turf, where no horse has won the Gamely twice. On May 26, Astra may change that, though the waters do figure to get deeper if Tranquility Lake and Tout Charmant show up.