Sweet Return Tackles Distance Issue in 'Capistrano

(from Santa Anita report)
Multiple grade I  winner Sweet Return has been established as the 5-2 morning line favorite among seven marathoners set to contest the 68th running of Santa Anita’s historic San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT), the $250,000 turf fixture at about 1 3/4 miles that concludes the track’s 85-day race meeting on Sunday.

The longest grass stakes race in North America, the storied event – whose past winners range from Seabiscuit to John Henry – takes on additional significance this year.

Although he has never raced beyond 1 1/4 miles and hasn’t won a graded stakes race since back-to-back grade I victories in Hollywood Park’s Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap and Del Mar’s Eddie Read Handicap during the summer of 2005, Sweet Return enters the San Juan with a decided pace advantage.

The 7-year-old British-bred is the field’s only dedicated front-runner. “Any kind of easy lead, and he gets very brave,” observed Mike Mitchell, who trains stretch-running 3-1 second choice On the Acorn.

Trained by Ron McAnally for Red Oak Stable, Sweet Return is the most accomplished of the entrants with earnings of $1,751,377 from an 8-6-6 record in 37 lifetime starts. McAnally, who sent out John Henry to victory in 1980, will be looking for his third San Juan triumph.

Alex Solis rides the chestnut who earlier in the meet won the ungraded Thunder Road Handicap at one mile by a nose while leading throughout. Sweet Return subsequently faltered in the Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap (gr. IIT) at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans on March 10 when fading to seventh at 1 1/8 miles after dueling on the pace.

On the Acorn has banked $98,400 since being claimed by Indizguys Stable last November. After being gelded, the British-bred 6-year-old reeled off a pair of wins at 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/2 miles in optional claiming races.

In his last start on Feb. 25, he finished third, one-half length behind victorious Obrigado in the San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT) at 12 furlongs, but was promoted to second after being impeded by runner-up One Off through the stretch.

Victor Espinoza has the mount on the son of Inchinor whose lifetime earnings total $260,812 from an overall record of 5-3-3 in 26 races.

The six-person partnership that owns him includes former major league baseball player and manager Buck Rodgers; Ross Newhan, Hall of Fame baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times, and Paul Salata, a former USC and San Francisco 49ers receiver who originated Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach, Calif., which honors the last player chosen in the NFL draft.

Following his disqualification from second to third in the San Luis Obispo, One Off disappointed when seventh as the 5-2 favorite in the March 24 San Luis Rey Handicap (gr. IIT) at 12 furlongs.

Brice Blanc will be back aboard the 7-year-old gelding trained by Neil Drysdale for Burt and Jane Bacharach. British-bred One Off shows a career record of 9-5-1 in 29 starts for earnings of $325,354.

Embossed ships in from the East for trainer Niall O’Callaghan and owner Gary A. Tanaka. The latter is a two-time winner of the San Juan (2003, Passinetti, and 1999, Single Empire) in partnership with Robert Sangster. The ridgling Embossed’s most notable victory came by a nose in last September’s Kentucky Turf Cup (gr. IIIT) over 1 1/2 miles at Kentucky Downs. The 5-year-old bay has earned $306,233 from a 4-5-2 record in 21 trips to the post.

$150,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 9, 4:30 p.m.), 4 & Up, About 1 3/4 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. One Off (GB), 116, Brice Blanc, 7/2
2. Fitz Flag (ARG), 113, G. F. Almeida, 5/1
3. Sweet Return (GB), 117, Alex O. Solis, 5/2
4. Embossed (IRE), 116, Larry Melancon, 5/1
5. On the Acorn (GB), 112, Victor Espinoza, 3/1
6. Icy Ridge (IRE), 112, Jon K. Court, 20/1
7. Boule d'Or (IRE), 113, Richard Migliore, 6/1