Front-running California Flag drew away in stunning fashion to register a 22-1 surprise in track record time while winning the $112,500 Morvich Handicap (gr. IIIT) (VIDEO) over Santa Anita's hillside turf course on opening day of the 40th Oak Tree Racing Association meet Sept. 24.
The Hi Card Ranch California homebred, making his graded stakes debut for trainer Brian Koriner, was guided to a three-length victory by Joe Talamo. They were never threatened in the stretch after opening a sizable lead coming off the turn. California Flag covered the about 6 1/2-furlong distance in a record time of 1:11.10 on firm going.
“It was a step up but he had the speed," Koriner said. "The lineup didn’t have any, the horse is training super, so we took a shot."
With the win, California Flag, a 4-year-old Avenue of Flags gelding, is guaranteed a berth in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint over the Santa Anita layout Oct. 25 pending payment of all required starting fees.
Koriner said they would pay the entry fee to run in the Breeders' Cup.
Soon after the break, Easy On The Eye fell after clipping heels, sending jockey Corey Nakatani tumbling to the turf. Both horse and rider got up immediately after the mishap. Nakatani was taken to a hospital for X-rays.
California Flag had set the pace in each of his last turf two sprints and won both of them so it was not a surprise that he wanted the lead from the start. Racing on the inside of Desert Code while off the rail, California Flag maintained a half-length advantage through a sizzling opening quarter-mile of :21.11, then began to gradually edge away as they reached the turn. They completed the opening half in :42.53.
One Union, rated behind the leaders early by Victor Espinoza, took up the chase as Desert Code dropped back on the turn and favored Get Funky began his bid. But the two challengers were no match for the winner in the stretch run. California Flag led by three at the furlong pole and held the advantage while under some urging. Get Funky got past One Union by head at the wire for second, with the late-running second choice Rebellion a half-length farther back in fourth.
"We were glad Craig Dollase’s horse (Tropic Storm) scratched because we thought that would make it easier on us up front," Talamo said. "As it turned out, Desert Code pushed us pretty good, but my horse was fresh and he ran great.”
The former track mark for the downhill course was 1:11.13 set by Lennyfromalibu on Jan. 22, 2004.
Out of the Afleet mare Ultrafleet, California Flag was coming off a neck victory over a first-level optional claiming allowance field Aug. 8 going five furlongs at Del Mar. He had scored a two-length win over statebred allowance foes at six furlongs at Hollywood Park earlier this summer. The Morvich marked the fourth win 11 tries for the gray, who collected $67,500 for his connections and boosted his overall earnings to $193,216.
Get Funky, the defending Morvich champion, was sent off as the 9-5 choice in the 10-horse field after winning his last four turf sprint races for trainer John Sadler.
California Flag paid $47.40, $16.40, and $9.
Get Funky, with Jose Valdivia Jr. aboard, returned $3.40 and $2.80. The $2 exacta was worth $163.60.
“The only thing I can think of is the heat sapped him because he was just a little too quiet in the post parade, and he usually gets a little worked up," Valdivia said of the favorite. "He was way too quiet. Even though they were going fast, he usually takes a hold of the bridle . . . I think today he ran second on class alone.”
One Union, shortening back up to a sprint for Richard Mandella after a ninth-place finish in the Del Mar Mile (gr. IIT) one month ago, paid $5.60 to show.
Rebellion was followed by Siren Lure, Soul City Slew, Desert Code, Ten Meropa, and Matto Mondo. Five Star Thief also scratched.