Off for more than eight months, champion Acclamation makes his much-awaited return in the $250,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) at Betfair Hollywood Park June 9, a race he has won the past two years.
The 6-year-old California-bred son of Unusual Heat brings a five-race winning streak into the Whittingham, stretching back to the Jim Murray Handicap (gr. IIT) nearly 13 months ago. Included in the streak was a gate-to-wire 3 1/2-length verdict in last year's Whittingham.
Trained by Don Warren for owner/breeders Bud and Judy Johnston and Peter and Mary Hilvers, Acclamation was voted the nation's top older horse in 2011. The burly bay has not been out since winning the Clement L. Hirsch (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Park Oct. 2. He also won the Eddie Read Stakes (gr. IT) and the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) on Polytrack, both at Del Mar, as part of last year's winning streak.
The Whittingham is contested at 1 1/4 miles on grass. A field of six is expected to take part, including San Marcos Stakes (gr. IIT) winner Slim Shadey. Multiple grade II winner Bourbon Bay and Acclamation's stablemate, grade II winner Norvsky, were nominated to the Whittingham but will not start.
The Whittingham is the 10th race on Hollywood's Belmont Stakes day program with a 4:40 p.m. probable post. Also on the card is the $150,000 Honeymoon Handicap (gr. IIT) for 3-year-old fillies on the turf. Hollywood will observe a special early first post of 11 a.m.
Acclamation, with nine wins in 28 races and earningsof $1,628,048, also captured the 2010 Whittingham in front-running style. Should he prevail again, he would join the legendary John Henry as the only three-time winner of the race, which was previously the Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap. John Henry won the race in 1980, '81, and as a 9-year-old in '84.
Veteran jockey Patrick Valenzuela, whose comeback this season at Hollywood was interrupted by weight issues, is named to ride Acclamation, who drew the outside post and was assigned 124 pounds for his comeback. Valenzuela, who has not ridden since May 19, has been aboard Acclamation in the champion's past two starts.
While it remains to be seen how Acclamation will respond to his lengthy layoff, which was punctuated by a couple of minor setbacks, he appears likely to get the sort of front-running trip at which he excels. Acclamation has won five of his 10 starts at Hollywood.
Phil Cunningham's Slim Shadey, a stalking type, won the San Marcos at the Whittingham distance in February for trainer Simon Callaghan. In his next start, the 4-year-old British-bred missed by a head to Bourbon Bay in the 12-furlong San Luis Rey (gr. IIT). He ventured to Churchill Downs for his most recent race, a runner-up effort to the front-running Little Mike on a good turf in the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) May 5.
The dark bay gelding has won two of five starts in 2012, with two seconds, after transferring from England, where he won once in 13 tries.
David Flores, who has ridden Slim Shadey in all of his North American races, is aboard once again. Slim Shadey breaks from post 4 with 120 pounds.
Utopian, trained by John Shirreffs for Jerry and Ann Moss, has a win over the course, taking the nine-furlong Inglewood Handicap (gr. IIIT) by a game head April 27. the 5-year-old by Rock Hard Ten finished a head behind Slim Shadey in the San Marcos prior to a fourth-place effort in the San Luis Rey.
Juniper Pass has earned two of his four wins over the Hollywood Park grass. Owned by Robert and Betty Irvin and trained by Ray Bell, the 5-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid is a two-time grade II winner, capturing the San Luis Rey Stakes and San Juan Capistrano Handicap (gr. IIT) in succession in 2011. He has been out of the money in his two starts this season.
Make Music for Me will be looking for his first graded victory for owners Ellen and Peter Johnson Sr. and trainer Alexis Barba. The 5-year-old Bernstein horse is 4-for-26 with earnings of $529,100. He led throughout in a $62,000 allowance in his first start of the spring/summer meet May 19.
The Whittingham is the eighth appearance for Make Music for Me in a grade I event. He finished second to Lookin At Lucky in the 2009 Del Mar Futurity (gr. I).
Irish-bred Barney Rebel steps up after a half-length victory in an optional claimer April 22 at Santa Anita. He could offer some early pressure to Acclamation.
$250,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT, Race 10, 4:40 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Utopian (KY), J Talamo, 117, J A Shirreffs
2. Juniper Pass (KY), R Bejarano, 117, T R Bell II
3. Barney Rebel (IRE), E Flores, 114, D Blacker
4. Slim Shadey (GB), D R Flores, 120, S Callaghan
5. Make Music for Me (KY), M Garcia, 116, A Barba
6. Acclamation (CA), P A Valenzuela, 124, D Warren