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Mathea Kelley

Will 'Flag' Unfurl in Turf Sprint?

California Flag, the 2009 BC Turf Sprint winner, attempts to overcome uneven season.

With rare exception, California Flag has always brougt his best game to the turf sprints that are his specialty. His emphatic win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IIT) highlighted a four-race streak that earned him invitations to major international events.

Relishing the downhill turf course at Santa Anita Park, California Flag led gate to wire in the then 61/2-furlong test to win by 1 3/4 lengths. The Avenue of Flags gelding and his Hi Card Ranch connections made Hong Kong their first post-Breeders’ Cup stop, and California Flag finished a solid fifth in the Dec. 13 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint (HK-I). Then it was off to Dubai, where Calfiornia Flag made his 2010 debut in late March with a third in the Al Quoz Sprint (UAE-III).

Rested until the Del Mar meet, the 6-year-old regained to his winning ways in the six-furlong Green Flash Handicap, taking it for the second year. Trainer Brian Koriner was optimistic the handsome gray was returning to his competitive best and sent him to Keeneland to shorten up for the 5 1/2-furlong Woodford Stakes (gr. IIIT). Instead, Calfornia Flag flopped as the favorite, finishing last by 11 lengths.

“That caught us by surprise,” Koriner said this week at Churchill Downs. “There’s no excuse for what happened at Keeneland.”

Koriner speculated California Flag disliked Keeneland’s undulating turf but also acknowledged he would not have the advantage of the Santa Anita slope.

“He’s as good as we can expect. He’s sound, feeling good,” the trainer said.

California Flag drew post 12 for the Turf Sprint and odds of 12-1, making him a co-fourth choice behind tepid favorite and Woodford winner Silver Timber (4-1). It could be any horse’s race—indeed, the full field includes a 3-year-old filly and a pair of 7-year-old geldngs—and Koriner hopes his charge will “fire and control his own destiny.”

For a horse that’s “gone around the world and done well,” a good effort over five furlongs of Churchill Downs turf would be just fine with Koriner and his team.

“We love him,” Koriner said, “and like to be around him.”

An exotic travel itinerary in 2011 wouldn't be all bad, either.