Anson Gambles on Japanese Invitation for Sign of Fire

The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships aren't the only races being run this Saturday. Just ask Ron Anson, who with wife Susie owns a 4-year-old colt named Sign of Fire, scheduled to run at Tokyo Racecourse on Saturday in the $750,000 Musashino Stakes (Jpn-III). When the Breeders' Cup Classic is run at Belmont Park at 5:30 p.m. (EDT) Saturday, it will be early Sunday morning in Tokyo, and the Ansons will be getting ready to leave for Narita Airport for a return trip to California.

The Ansons finished third with Lord Sterling in the inaugural running of the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I), a companion race run the same weekend as the Japan Cup (Jpn-I) on turf in late November. Lord Sterling earned more than $300,000 finishing second to the Japanese runner Wing Arrow.

This year, the likely favorite in the Japan Cup Dirt will be John Amerman's Lido Palace, who might have been the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic but would have had to be supplemented at a cost of $800,000. Instead, trainer Robert Frankel is sending Lido Palace to Japan and hoping to win the Classic with Aptitude.

Unlike the Japan Cup invitational races, where the Japan Racing Association pays for all of the travel expenses for horses and their connections, Anson is putting up more than $60,000 of his own money to run Sign of Fire in the Musashino, a one-mile race on dirt that serves as a prep for the 1 3/16-mile Japan Cup Dirt. Anson is hoping his horse runs good enough to receive an invitation to the Japan Cup Dirt.

Sign of Fire hasn't been victorious since November of 1999, when he won a turf allowance race at Calder for non-winners of a race other than maiden or claiming. He was purchased privately by the Ansons for $175,000 following that race and has mostly competed in stakes company since then, finishing second in the 2000 Emerald Downs Derby and third in the British Columbia Derby (Can-III). The son of Groomstick has been out twice this year, both times at Del Mar in allowance company. He finished ninth, beaten seven lengths in a 6 1/2-furlong sprint in July, then fifth in a mile race Aug. 23.

"Instead of going in an allowance race for $42,000 we thought we'd be going against similar kind of horses in Japan and race for $750,000," Ron Anson said. "It's a gamble. It's costing $27,000 to ship each way for the horse, plus our travel costs, but if we get an invitation to the Japan Cup Dirt he'll stay there and the JRA said they would reimburse me for our expenses."

The Musashino and Japan Cup events are among the few races offered by the JRA that are open to horses from outside of Japan.

"They don't have a lot of good dirt horses over there yet," he said, "and I think he's got a good chance in this race. If he finishes fifth I'll at least cover most of my expenses."

Alfredo Marquez trains Sign of Fire, and he will be ridden by Danny Sorenson.

"Alfredo and others say he's on the edge of being as good as Lord Sterling," said Anson. "In the mile race (at Del Mar), the track was impossible to close on and he was on the outside. I just think he's an athlete. He's coming up to the race real well and is a good traveler."

Sign of Fire arrived at the JRA's quarantine center Oct. 17.

Meanwhile, Anson said Lord Sterling is back in training after suffering an injury after his Japan race last year. "We're hoping that at the beginning of the year he might be at Gulfstream Park for the Donn Handicap (gr. I)," Anson said.

The Ansons operate a stable of mostly claiming horses, but they recently scored their biggest win when Tali'sluckybusride won the Oak Leaf Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita. "She's the best horse I've ever been around," said Anson who said he also bought the Oak Leaf winner's mare in foal to Delineator (sire of Tali'sluckybusride) for $75,000 three weeks before the Oak Leaf. "I'll have a full brother or sister in April and ship the mare to Kentucky and breed her to Forestry," he said. "It's nice for a little guy like me to get a taste of success."