With defending champion Game On Dude skipping the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Ultimate Eagle leads a field of 13 in the $750,000 event March 3.
Dominating winner of the Strub Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 4 in his first start on dirt by 7 1/4 lengths, the front-running Ultimate Eagle was made the 5-2 morning line choice for the 75th renewal of the 1 1/4-mile Big 'Cap.
Trained by Michael Pender for owner B.J. Wright, Ultimate Eagle has won five of his past six starts. The 4-year-old son of Mizzen Mast captured the Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) and Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) on turf prior to the Strub.
The Santa Anita Handicap is the final race on an 11-race program that also includes the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (gr. IT) at one mile on turf and the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) for 3-year-old fillies at one mile on the main track.
Bred in Kentucky by B.P. Walden and D. Hanley, Ultimate Eagle is a dark bay colt out of the Captain Bodgit mare Letithappencaptain. He sold for $70,000 at Ocala as a 2-year-old in training in April 2010 and suffered a serious case of colic before ever racing. He did not make his racing debut until last April 30, losing his first three races before breaking his maiden on turf at Del Mar July 31. His career mark stands at 5-0-3 in 9 races with earnings of $467,800.
Martin Pedroza, who has been aboard Ultimate Eagle since that maiden victory, expresses ultimate confidence in the colt.
“I’ve said it before and I still say it. He’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden. There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Pedroza, who won the 1989 Big 'Cap aboard the 50-1 outsider Martial Law.
Ultimate Eagle will break from post 2 while toting high weight of 120 pounds.
Bob Baffert's decision not to enter Game On Dude in favor of challenging the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 31 means that there will not be a reprise of last year's gut-wrenching stretch duel in the Big 'Cap, when Game On Dude nosed Setsuko. The latter returns, however, trying to give Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella his fourth win in the prestigious race.
Wertheimer and Frere's homebred was a 25-1 outsider in last year's race. Since then, the 5-year-old son of Pleasantly Perfect has been gelded and is training superbly for his return. He most recently drilled seven furlongs in 1:23 4/5 Feb. 23 at Santa Anita.
Setsuko comes into the race off a 2 1/4-length optional claiming victory at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 4. That was his first win since he graduated in 2009. The bay, who has just two first-place finishes in 17 lifetime starts, has earned $506,486 while accumulating nine placings. Regular pilot Victor Espinoza has the call.
Norvsky, 1 1/2-length winner of the San Gabriel Stakes (gr. IIT) on turf in January, makes a rare start on dirt for trainer Donald Warren. The 6-year-old California-bred son of Vronsky is coming off a third-place finish in the San Marcos Stakes (gr. IIT) on turf at the Big 'Cap distance.
E.W. and Judy Johnston of Old English Rancho race Norvsky in partnership with Robert Riggio. The consistent gelding has a 6-7-4 mark in 19 starts with earnings of $505,844. He drew post 10 with 118 pounds and will team with Joe Talamo.
Baffert, who also won the Big 'Cap in 2010 with Misremembered, entered Zayat Stables' Prayer for Relief, a multiple graded stakes winner last year looking to end a four-race slide. The 4-year-old Jump Start colt was third in the Strub last time, 9 1/2 lengths behind Ultimate Eagle.
Martin Garcia jumps aboard for Rafael Bejarano on Prayer for Relief, who won the Iowa Derby (gr. III), West Virginia Derby (gr. II), and Super Derby (gr. II) in succession. They are near the far outside in post 11.
San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) victor Uh Oh Bango returns for trainer Kory Owens and Triple AAA Ranch after a second-place finish in the San Antonio. The Arizona-bred 5-year-old son of Top Hit will have Mike Smith aboard and they will break from the rail.
“He’s the kind of horse that can get the distance and he’s doing really well,” Smith said. “His last race was good. Game On Dude ran terrific that day. If we get lucky and get a little pace up front, who knows what can happen?"
CRK Stable's Gladding can be counted upon to press Ultimate Eagle on the front end. The 5-year-old son of Sarava won last year's San Antonio in front-running fashion for trainer John Sadler before weakening to 10th in the 2011 Big 'Cap. The gelding has raced just twice since then, most recently finishing fourth after setting the pace in the Ack Ack Stakes (gr. III) in the mud at Churchill Downs Nov. 4.
Trainer Bill Mott ships in with Ron the Greek, a two-time stakes winner in New York last year. The 5-year-old son of Full Mandate was second to Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park in his last start Jan. 28.
Shipping west from Oaklawn Park is Twice the Appeal, now racing for trainer Jeff Bonde.
Winner of the Sunland Derby (gr. III) in 2011, the Successful Appeal colt had been out of action since finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). He returned with a second in Oaklawn's Fifth Season Stakes in January and was most recently third in the Essex Handicap Feb. 4.
$750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 11, 5:38 p.m. PT), 4 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Uh Oh Bango (AZ), M E Smith, 117, R K Owens, 6/1
2. Ultimate Eagle (KY), M A Pedroza, 120, M Pender, 5/2
3. Ron the Greek (FL), J Lezcano, 116, W I Mott, 6/1
4. Boxeur des Rues (KY), M Gutierrez, 112, D F O'Neill, 50/1
5. Thirtyfirststreet (CA), E Flores, 114, D F O'Neill, 30/1
6. Twice the Appeal (KY), C Santiago Reyes, 114, J Bonde, 30/1
7. Fiddlers Afleet (NY), K Krigger, 110, P Eurton, 50/1
8. Gladding (FL), J Rosario, 116, J W Sadler, 12/1
9. Setsuko (KY), V Espinoza, 116, R E Mandella, 4/1
10. Norvsky (CA), J Talamo, 118, D Warren, 6/1
11. Prayer for Relief (KY), M Garcia, 117, B Baffert, 8/1
12. Holladay Road (CA), R Bejarano, 114, J C Canani, 8/1
13. Victory Pete (FL), C S Nakatani, 114, A Barba, 50/1