Published in the March 16 issue of The Blood-Horse
We have become a dependent people. If you're not convinced, try getting through your day without dialing that cell phone, starting that notebook computer, or--horrors!--swiping that precious ATM card. Oftentimes, too, our complete devotion to things constant trickles into the realm of sports. We channel our universal faith through the Lou Gehrigs, the John Elways, and the Laffit Pincays of the world. Their day-to-day struggles minutely become ours. Their odds-on successes provide a reassuring motivation. And every so often in the Thoroughbred racing game, we are blessed with a tale of two, a pair of equine athletes hopelessly entwined with one another, a pair whose persistent excellence never leaves us wanting more. The epic battles of Affirmed and Alydar immediately come to mind, as does the to-and-fro saga that was Silver Charm and Free House. Feast your eyes upon the West Coast now, where a similar tale is being spun. By now, You and Habibti have clearly established themselves as the best 3-year-old fillies on the continent, though who is better is usually a matter of circumstance. They resumed their entertaining affray on March 9, and just as she did a month earlier, You again had a little bit more, holding off Habibti in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I). But not by much. Whenever they square off, it's generally impossible to separate them. Surprisingly, their first battle wasn't much of one at all. Illness, affecting one before and the other after, ruined any chances in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). Consequently, You and Habibti made little impact at Belmont. Since then, they haven't looked back. Habibti took their first legitimate showdown in December's Hollywood Starlet (gr. I), but only by a head. Their quest for the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) began in earnest last month, and You turned the tables, outrunning her rival by a length in the one-mile Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I). When analyzed more closely, the daughter of You and I's effort in the Las Virgenes was doubly impressive, considering that she raced well off the fence around each turn. When the 8 1/2-furlong Santa Anita Oaks began to unfold, jockey Jerry Bailey managed to park her closer inside, just off the heels of Adoration, Ile de France, and Respectful. There were no qualms when Bailey eased You wider down the backstretch--"Not after last time," he later said. "I couldn't go much wider than I did last time"--giving her a clear path to attack entering the far turn. Two lengths behind You, Habibti began her move simultaneously. Bailey didn't look; he didn't need to. He knew Habibti was on the prowl. "I can hear her bridle," he said. "She's got something squeaky on her bit, and I could hear it coming." Turning for home, they dropped the gloves. Ile de France held on tight till the eighth pole, when You and Habibti took over. Just as she did in the Las Virgenes, Habibti gave You everything she had, and just like last time, You fought her off the whole way. The final margin was half a length. Ile de France, a 55-1 shot taking a huge jump for trainer Richard Mandella, held off Farda Amiga for third. The 1 1/16 miles went in 1:42.70. "Her last effort I thought was better because she was so wide on both turns. She wasn't nearly as wide on the first turn today as she was the other day," admitted Bailey, adding that passing the wire, You felt "as strong as she does at the quarter pole." This, of course, bodes well for You, who will carry the hopes of owners Edmund and Bernice Gann down the long Churchill Downs stretch come May 3. More than likely, Habibti won't be very far behind her.
AZERI EARNS AN 'A'
Both You and Habibti have the credentials of world travelers compared to the callow Azeri. It doesn't stand to reason that a 4-year-old making just the fifth start of her career should swipe one of the nation's most distinguished races. Azeri, however, is growing up fast. The daughter of Jade Hunter has gone from zero to superstar in less than five months, and her three-length dazzler in the $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) on March 10 underscored her status as the most exciting middle-distance filly in the land. Now, however, there may be nothing Azeri can't do. Given a delicate blend of care and patience by trainer Laura De Seroux, she has developed at a rapid pace, leaping each new hurdle with the ease of Edwin Moses. Save for a narrow loss to Summer Colony--enough said--Azeri would be unbeaten. According to jockey Mike Smith, a faulty break in the La Canada Stakes (gr. II) last time out might have made all the difference. In the Santa Margarita, Azeri left the one-hole without a hitch. From there, she merely stayed put along the fence, keeping a close eye on Favorite Funtime and Spain. Spain's quick spurt near the quarter pole left Favorite Funtime behind, but Azeri was immediately on her. Inside the eighth pole, Azeri slammed the door shut. Striding out in majestic fashion, she covered nine furlongs in 1:49.01. Printemps was third. Bred by the late Allen Paulson and owned by his Living Trust, Azeri is definitely one you shouldn't miss.
Over the past years, few trainers have carried the firepower of Bob Baffert, Bobby Frankel, and Richard Mandella. The trio will be conspicuously absent, however, when Nad Al Sheba racecourse plays host to the world the night of March 23. With the "Big Three" holding back this go-round, the West Coast sent a lean group overseas on March 9 for the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and its lucrative satellites. But what the topical contingent may be lacking in numbers, it definitely makes up for in punch. California's biggest impact is apt to be felt two races prior to the World Cup. Though the $2-million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) at six furlongs may boil down to Xtra Heat versus the world, a threesome of local geldings figures to keep her pressured every step of the way. They are led by the defending winner Caller One, the 5-year-old son of Phone Trick who will be making his seasonal debut for trainer Jim Chapman. Another who is returning to Dubai is the 9-year-old Men's Exclusive. The warrior by Exclusive Ribot was training like a demon prior to departure, giving trainer Wesley Ward hopes that this time around, the old boy can turn the tables on Caller One. And just weeks ago, trainer Darrell Vienna was shuffling through three potential contenders for the Golden Shaheen. Lasersport, however, injured himself again, consequently delaying his comeback, while the filly Above Perfection will be kept home and aimed for races on the grass. Instead, the barn will be represented by the reliable Echo Eddie, which could make for an unforgettable evening for owners David and Rita Milch. Aside from Echo Eddie, the Milch colors will be flying one race later atop none other than Val Royal. All winter the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) winner has been geared with the $2-million Dubai Duty Free (UAE-IT) in mind. With a proper tune-up now under his belt and an additional furlong to work with in the Duty Free, the son of Royal Academy--as usual--poses a huge threat. Chapman himself is in line for a red-letter night, as well. After Caller One's sprint, he will return to saddle Western Pride, the lone U.S. entrant in the $6-million World Cup. The 4-year-old Way West colt will have his hands full, though, as he faces a Godolphin cavalry led by Sakhee, and the Japanese one-two punch of Agnes Digital and To the Victory. In the night's other events, locals Grey Memo and Blade Prospector will take a crack at the $1-million Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) on dirt, while Total Impact, a recent addition to De Seroux' outfit, will contest the $2-million U.A.E. Derby (UAE-II) over nine furlongs.