The 35th edition of the $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap March 23 was a grade II contest in name only. With five grade I winners among the nine starters, including the last two victors of the Matriarch (gr. IT) and the most recent Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT) conqueror, the Santa Ana shaped up as one of the finest races of the Santa Anita meeting. And it more than lived up to its billing when Golden Apples took a huge bite out of the talented field. The nine-furlong turf test for older fillies and mares proved the seasonal jumping off point for several classy distaffers. The Bobby Frankel-owned and -trained Starine tested the waters for the first time since winning the Matriarch last November. That, too, was Golden Apples' last trip to the races. Astra had been off since the Beverly D. (gr. IT) in August, while Tout Charmant (January) and Janet (February) were coming in off shorter layoffs. Anything Frankel sends out these days draws attention, and Starine left the gate the 2-1 favorite. She and Tout Charmant made the early running, exchanging pace-setting chores through realistic opening fractions of :24.28 and :48.52 over the firm turf. Approaching a mile in 1:35.74, Astra ranged up on the turn and looked to have plenty of kick. But drafting behind that one, Garrett Gomez and Golden Apples waited for clear sailing. Reluctant to load and, after a brief bronco-kicking routine, reluctant to run early, Golden Apples found herself dead last with two furlongs to run. However, she had showcased a devastating turn of foot in winning the Del Mar Oaks (gr. IT) in August and an even more explosive move when beating her elders in the Las Palmas Handicap (gr. IIT) in November. "I was following Kent Desormeaux on Astra and I thought he was loaded, but he was having trouble circling around," said Gomez of crunch time in the Santa Ana. "I didn't want to sit eight-wide, so I dropped down inside, tapped her on the shoulder, and she accelerated." Did she ever. The Ben Cecil-trainee blew past Starine and Astra to score by 1 1/4 lengths, flying the last eighth in :11.29 to stop the timer at 1:47.05. Tout Charmant finished fourth. Golden Apples began her career in Ireland, where she was a maiden winner in four tries. Her Irish trainer, David Hanley, had told Cecil that she wouldn't like firm ground very much, causing the California-based Cecil to wonder what he was getting into. Turns out he needn't have worried. Golden Apples' only sub-par effort stateside came over yielding ground in the Matriarch, where she still managed to finish third on class. Purchased privately by international financier Gary Tanaka last summer, the now 4-year-old Golden Apples won the Del Mar Oaks literally off the plane. She followed that up with another winning effort in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (gr. IT) at Keeneland, only to have the talented Affluent outfinish her by a neck. The daughter of Pivotal, bred by James Egan and Hanley, came right back to take the Las Palmas just before her Matriarch try. She is now three-for-five in this country, four-for-nine overall, and has earned just over $600,000. Tanaka enjoyed quite a weekend, as his Sarafan triumphed in the Explosive Bid (gr. IIT) at Fair Grounds one day after the Santa Ana.
Tanaka and Cecil had a brief falling out last year when the owner moved some of his stock to other trainers around the country. They ultimately patched things up, for which the trainer can now be thankful. "She is the stable star, and I was very nervous the past few days waiting for this race," Cecil said. "We've been waiting since the Matriarch to face these fillies again. There was no pace on in the race and she still kicked in. We hoped she would come back strong. It was difficult putting her away for the winter, but I'm glad we did." Cecil said he was looking to the April 20 $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap (gr. IIT) at 10 furlongs, or the May 27 $400,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) at 1 1/8 miles to next unleash Golden Apples. If she stays right, this one can take her connections straight to the Garden of Eden. b Arcadia Editions
Bella Bellucci, making her first start since a third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), annexed the Santa Paula Stakes March 24. Owned by Michael Tabor and conditioned by Neil Drysdale, the 3-year-old is a contender for the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I)...When Grey Memo won the Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) March 23, it marked the first $1 million win for 80-year-old trainer Warren Stute...Modernist, by Bertrando, was an impressive maiden winner on the Santa Ana undercard. The first-timer is a homebred for Pam and Marty Wygod and trained by Bob Baffert. By Lenny Shulman (Chart, Equibase)