Smokey Image in undefeated in 5 starts.

Smokey Image in undefeated in 5 starts.

Benoit Photo

Smokey Image Faces Tough Test in CA Cup Derby

Classics could be in the future for Southern Image colt if he takes to two turns.

At any level of racing, there is something a bit magical about an undefeated horse. Make it a 3-year-old colt, and the mind goes to one place.

For Irvin Racing Stable's Smokey Imagea winner in each of his five startsChurchill Downs seems a long way away. But one of many significant hurdles on a potential path to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is quickly approaching Jan. 30 in the $250,000 California Cup Derby at Santa Anita Park.

The 1 1/16-mile dirt test will be the homebred Southern Image colt's first start at two turns and first start for trainer Carla Gaines. He was previously with Greg James in Northern California, where he broke his maiden by five lengths in his five-furlong debut at Pleasanton's Oak Tree meeting in June, then turned back in two weeks to win the Everett Nevin Stakesby 6 1/2 lengthsalso at Pleasanton. He remained on the California fair circuit to win the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes by two lengths at Santa Rosa in August before back-to-back California-bred stakes wins at Del Mar wrapped up his 2-year-old season.

"They want to try to go to the next level with him," Gaines said. "Two turns, against open company (should answer the question), is he good enough to compete in some classic races?"

Gaines thinks the colt's pedigree suits longer distancesboth his sire, Southern Image, and broodmare sire, Freehouse, won the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), and Freehouse also placed in each of the Triple Crown races in 1997but with any horse, she has to see it on the track before she becomes a believer.

"They have to do itbottom line," Gaines said. "In the mornings, what we've noticed is that he's ratable. He'll wait until you call on him. He's got a big, long stride and the way he trains and gallops out well in his worksthat's what we're hoping he'll do."

Versatility is also a positive factor for Smokey Image, albeit only with sprints on his résumé. He's come from off the pace, ran out front, and also powered through a brutal trip. That final aspect may be the most encouraging. During his last start, in the seven-furlong Golden State Juvenile Stakes Oct. 30 at Del Mar, Smokey Image bobbled at the start, was steadied on the rail during the turn and dropped back to seventh, then rallied gamely to win by three-quarters of a length over Found Money, who went on to win the King Glorious Stakes at a mile two starts later.

"Wasn't that crazy?" Gaines said. "That was crazy."

Since switching barns in November, Smokey Image has received a bit of a break from Gaines, who would ideally like one more work in him before racing, but the trainer got positive feedback from first-time rider Victor Espinoza after breezing seven furlongs in 1:26 3/5 Jan. 23 at Santa Anita.

"I didn't expect him to be ready, but Victor worked him seven furlongs by himself and said 'Don't worry about his condition. He's good to go,' " Gaines said. "It's not our main goal to win this race, but we obviously want to. If he is a legitimate two-turn horse, we'd have six weeks to recover and try open company in the San Felipe (gr. II, March 12 at Santa Anita)."

The California Cup Derby is just one of five lucrative stakes for state-breds on Saturday's 10-race Santa Anita card.

The most competitive of the five is arguably the $250,000 California Cup Turf Classic. The full field of 12 (with one also eligible) for the 1 1/8-mile grass race features four graded stakes winners, including last year's Turf Classic winner Alert Bay. An 11-time winner from 22 starts, the 5-year-old City Zip gelding trained by Blaine Wright could become a millionaire with a top-three finish Saturday.

G. G. Ryder is another 11-time winner, including back-to-back victories in the San Francisco Mile (gr. IIIT) and All American Stakes (gr. III) last year at Golden Gate Fields, but was defeated by Poshsky in their last meeting Nov. 29 in the Berkeley Handicap (gr. III), also at Golden Gate. Tamarando  also brings graded credentials into the Turf Classic.

LAMARRA: Poshsky Rallies to Take Berkeley Handicap

Also on the stakes slate, Roo's Valentine will look to win a third straight race against familiar rivals (she won the Soviet Problem Stakes last time out Dec. 5 at Los Alamitos Race Course in her first start against winners) in the $200,000 California Cup Oaks at a mile on the turf course; last-out Midnight Lute (gr. III) winner San Onofre heads the $150,000 Donald Valpredo California Cup Sprint; and Velvet Mesquite and Heavens Stairway will each seek their sixth victory down the Santa Anita hillside turf course in the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf Sprint.

Entries: California Cup Derby

Santa Anita Park, Saturday, January 30, 2016, Race 5

  • STK
  • 1 1/16m
  • Dirt
  • $250,000
  • 3 yo
  • 2:01 PM (local)
11Tough It Out (CA)Santiago Gonzalez119Philip D'Amato6/1
22Smokey Image (CA)Victor Espinoza123Carla Gaines4/5
33Record Highs (CA)Joseph Talamo119Carla Gaines10/1
44Demonslayer (CA)Rafael Bejarano119Richard Baltas8/1
55Glory Bound (CA)Edwin A. Maldonado119Craig Dollase4/1
66Xingontothebone (CA)Martin A. Pedroza121Walther Solis8/1
77Loyalist (CA)Flavien Prat119Brian J. Koriner12/1