Favored California Flag led nearly all the way to win the $100,000 Morvich Handicap (gr. IIIT) on opening day of the Oak Tree Racing Association meet at Santa Anita Park Sept. 30, earning a repeat victory in the hillside turf course event over runner-up Get Funky and a berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
Joe Talamo drove the 5-year-old California-bred son of Avenue of Flags to victory by one length over Get Funky, who also ran second in last year's Morvich. Bruce's Dream, a 3-year-old who was undefeated in his three prior starts, rallied for third in his stakes debut.
The final time for the about 6 1/2-furlong distance, 1:11.40 on firm footing, was three-tenths of a second off the course mark established by the speedy California Flag in last year's Morvich.
For the second year, the Morvich was part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge series for the turf sprint division, rewarding California Flag with an automatic slot. The $1-million race Nov. 7 is contested on the same course and at the same distance as the Morvich.
Brian Koriner trains California Flag for owner/breeder Keith Card's Hi Card Ranch. The gray/roan gelding won last year's Morvich by three lengths. But forced to duel on a hot pace in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, he tired after ridiculously fast fractions (:20.73, :41.81) to finish 10th as Desert Code produced a 36-1 upset.
“He’s by far the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden," Talamo said. "Brian has done a great job with him. He’s so much more relaxed this year. I love the way he comes up to the Breeders’ Cup this year; this was only his second start since last November, and he’s a much better horse than he was last year.”
Desert Code, who finished far up the track in last year's Morvich, was not a factor this time around, either. The David Hofmans trainee finished seventh.
“He basically needed the race," jockey Richard Migliore said. "He made a little run, then he kind of leveled off. No amount of work can do what a race can do. And he’s an older horse now. So, obviously like all of us, we tend to expand in the midline a little bit as we get older. I really think the race will make him come on."
Hofmans said Desert Code would be pointed toward a defense of his Breeders' Cup victory.
The 31-day Oak Tree meet began on a picture-perfect fall day that attracted 17,239 fans, a slight uptick from last year's opening day. On-track wagering totaled $1,884,513.
But the faltering economy has already dealt a blow, with purses for claiming, maiden, and allowance races reduced by 10%-12% from a year ago.
Tenga Cat took the lead coming out of the gate, but California Flag, to his inside, soon established control. California Flag maintained an advantage over the outsider Tenga Cat and Stoneside as Get Funky rated in fourth through quarter-mile fractions of :21.55 and :43.04.
California Flag was still fresh as they cleared the dirt portion of the turf course and kicked away through the lane as Tenga Cat and Stoneside weakened. California Flag, under slight left-handed encouragement from Talamo, was in command by more than two lengths approaching mid-stretch before Get Funky, under right-handed urging from Tyler Baze, began to cut into the lead. But it was too little too late as California Flag held sway under steady handling.
“He was really nice and relaxed today," Koriner said. "Hopefully, the Breeders’ Cup will be a little slower than it was last year. I think he’s doing way better this year.”
Get Funky, who continued willingly to the wire, was 1 3/4 lengths clear of Bruce's Dream, who charged late to nip Tiz West by a neck for the show dough.
"We’re going to have to consider him for the other one (Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint)," trainer John Sadler said of Get Funky, "because we’re here, and he does have a good record on this course.”
It was the seventh win in 15 lifetime starts for California Flag, who is out of the Afleet mare Ultrafleet. The $60,000 winning purse increased his earnings to $412,996. California Flag has had only one previous start this year, winning the Green Flash Handicap by a neck at Del Mar Aug. 19.
The winner paid $5.20, $3.40, and $2.80 and topped a $2 exacta worth $48.80. Get Funky, who finished ninth in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and has gone winless for more than 13 months, ran a much-improved race and returned $8.40 and $5. Bruce's Dream, from the Mike Puype barn, paid $4.40 to show.