Racing fans will want to take a short break from pre-Super Bowl hype Feb. 2 to check out the $200,000 Palos Verdes Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park, where Eclipse Award sprint finalists Secret Circle and Sahara Sky are set for battle.
The grade I winners who lost out on the end-of-the-year award to Points Offthebench are part of a field of just five entered for the six-furlong test for older horses. The Palos Verdes goes as race 4 on the Sunday card with a 12:30 p.m. PST scheduled post.
Secret Circle captured last fall's memorable Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Santa Anita, and gets back to work for Bob Baffert. His Hall of Fame training colleague, Jerry Hollendorfer, counters with Sahara Sky, the defending Palos Verdes winner who was last seen winning the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) by a nose May 27 at Belmont Park.
Hollendorfer, who entered two others in the Palos Verdes, and Baffert are separated by one win atop the Santa Anita trainer standings this season as of Jan. 30.
Secret Circle "couldn't be doing better" for his 2014 campaign commencer, Baffert says. The 5-year-old horse by Eddington comes into the race off three consecutive bullet workouts over the Santa Anita main track. The most recent was a five-furlong drill in :58 4/5 Jan. 27, fastest of 40 at the distance.
Never worse than second over a nine-race career that includes seven victories and earnings of $1,878,790, Secret Circle won the BC Sprint Nov. 2 by a neck after rallying six wide through the lane. He completed the six-furlong distance in 1:08.73. That came after winning his prep for the World Championships, his only other start in 2013, in 1:07.98.
Owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, Secret Circle will be handled once again by Martin Garcia. They break from post 4 with top weight of 123 pounds.
Six-year-old Sahara Sky looks to defend his one-length victory in last year's Palos Verdes, which he won at odds of 21-1 in an eye-catching time of 1:07.73. He leaves from post 2 for Hollendorfer, who owns the son of Pleasant Tap with Barretts Sales and Racing general manager Kim Lloyd's Sweetwater Stable.
Sahara Sky won three of his four starts last year, culminating with his late-running triumph in the Met Mile over pacesetting Cross Traffic in a terrific battle. He earned a 110 Beyer figure for his effort. He also won the San Carlos Stakes (gr. II) last year and was second in the Carter Handicap (gr. II) prior to the Metropolitan.
Turned out by Hollendorfer last August, the dark bay horse has been working for his return on a weekly basis going back to early December. He has posted six drills over the Santa Anita main track since Dec. 27, and the past three have been at six furlongs, most recently working in company Jan. 26 in 1:13 3/5.
Hollendorfer did much the same thing with Sahara Sky last year, bringing him back off a seven-month layoff to score the Palos Verdes.
Sahara Sky brings a lifetime record of 7-3-4 from 16 starts and earnings of $888,680 into his first meeting with Secret Circle. He'll get three pounds from his opponent and will be ridden from gate 2 by Corey Nakatani.
Also in the field is Majestic Stride, odds-on winner of the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes (gr. III) by 2 1/2 lengths in his most recent start Nov. 28 at Betfair Hollywood Park. The 5-year-old son of Trippi has four wins and a second in seven lifetime starts for Jeff Bonde, who trains the bay gelding for owners Edward Brown Jr., Alan Klein, and Phil Lebherz.
Majestic Stride was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint prior to the Underwood, beaten by just 1 1/2 lengths.
Hollendorfer also entered Wild Dude, a son of Wildcat Heir who has won his past two starts in allowance company, and Moonshine Bay, a 15-time winner from 36 races who was second in the Midnight Lute Stakes Jan. 4 at Santa Anita.
Majestic Stride and Moonshine Bay will likely vie for the lead, while Secret Circle figures to be up close as well. Sahara Sky will be looking for a fast tempo as he tends to show his best when he can sit well off the pace and blast home.
$200,000 Palos Verdes Stakes (gr. II, Race 4, 12:30 p.m.), 4 & Up, 6 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Wild Dude (FL), R Bejarano, 118, J Hollendorfer
2. Sahara Sky (FL), C S Nakatani, 120, J Hollendorfer
3. Majestic Stride (FL), E A Maldonado, 118, J Bonde
4. Secret Circle (KY), M Garcia, 123, B Baffert
5. Moonshine Bay (KY), G L Stevens, 118, J Hollendorfer