Midnight Storm wins the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park

Midnight Storm wins the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park

BENOIT PHOTO

Midnight Storm Rolls Into Santa Anita Handicap

Five-time graded winner on turf is highweight in Santa Anita Handicap (G1).

All it took was a couple impressive starts on dirt for Midnight Storm to go from gutsy turf miler to highweight in the premier handicap race on the West Coast.

After five graded wins on the grass, including a grade 1 victory in the 2016 Shoemaker Mile Stakes, co-owner Alex Venneri wanted to give the 6-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile  one more chance on the main track.

In his first try on the surface for his current connections—after going one for four on dirt for trainer Jorge Gutierrez in 2014—Midnight Storm dueled for the lead, but faded badly to finish 10th, 36 3/4 lengths behind winner Beholder in the 2015 Pacific Classic (G1). So back to the grass he went, where he continued to thrive. But there was an itch that still needed to be scratched.

"He's one of these horses, where he always trained so good on the dirt. You just kept scratching your head," trainer Phil D'Amato said. "We tried him in the Pacific Classic and maybe the timing wasn't good in that instance. He always trained as good on the dirt as on the grass. It was really Alex Venneri who had the idea to give him one more try."

That one try, a 7 3/4-length romp in the Nov. 27 Native Diver Stakes (G3), turned into a second dirt try—this time a 1 1/4-length victory in the Jan. 1 San Pasqual Stakes (G2). Now Midnight Storm is the co-highweight (122 pounds) in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) March 11 at Santa Anita Park.

BALAN: Midnight Storm Speeds to San Pasqual Victory

"Since the (Native Diver), the confidence he's trained with has been special," D'Amato said. "It's fun to have a versatile horse who has a grade 1 win on turf and hopefully now a grade 1 win on dirt."

The most pressing question mark for Midnight Storm, however, is the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Big 'Cap. His Pacific Classic at the same distance could not have gone much worse, but D'Amato is optimistic that the extra furlong (the Native Diver was 1 1/8 miles) won't be a problem.

"His gallop outs have always been very strong, which I use as a good indicator of distance limitations," D'Amato said. "He always gallops out in his breezes in sub-1:40 for a mile and that's a very good indication. I've been very impressed with that, and in his last breeze, there was company in front of him and he sat off them and blew them away."

That's not to say D'Amato doesn't expect to have the lead. The speedy dark brown horse—on paper, at least—figures to be significantly faster early than any other horse in the expected field of nine.

He may have to make up significant ground late in the Big 'Cap, but the other horse carrying 122 pounds Saturday has been tested at the level and distance.

Stronach Stables' Shaman Ghost has shipped in from Florida for trainer Jimmy Jerkens following a second-place run to Arrogate in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1). The 5-year-old son of Ghostzapper  has only finished off the board once in his past five races—all in graded company—and has the stamina to go even longer than 1 1/4 miles, as he showed in his 2016 Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (G2) victory at 1 1/2 miles. He also earned a top-level score in the 2016 Woodward (G1).

NOVAK: Shaman Ghost Upsets Woodward

Also in the field are last-out stakes winners Isotherm (San Marcos Stakes, G2T) and Imperative (Poseidon Stakes), along with 2015 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) winner Hard Aces, graded stakes-placed Twentytwentyvision, five-time allowance winner Follow Me Crev, allowance victor Gangster, and South American group 1 winner Hi Happy.

Entries: Santa Anita H. Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1)

Santa Anita Park, Saturday, March 11, 2017, Race 10

  • Grade I
  • 1 1/4m
  • Dirt
  • $750,000
  • 4 yo's & up
  • 4:44 PM (local)
PPHorseJockeyWgtTrainerM/L
11Midnight Storm (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRafael Bejarano122Philip D'Amato8/5
22Gangster (KY)Mario Gutierrez115Doug F. O'Neill30/1
33Shaman Ghost (ON)Javier Castellano122James A. Jerkens2/1
44Isotherm (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateFlavien Prat119George Weaver12/1
55Hard Aces (KY)Victor Espinoza119John W. Sadler15/1
66Follow Me Crev (KY)Kent J. Desormeaux116Vladimir Cerin8/1
77Twentytwentyvision (KY)Mike E. Smith116Richard E. Mandella12/1
88Hi Happy (ARG)Altair Domingos116Felipe N Souza12/1
99Imperative (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateAntonio A. Gallardo119Robert B. Hess, Jr.5/1