Another eagle has landed. A golden eagle, that is. Once a national star on the national breeding and racing scene, the Golden Eagle Farm of John and Betty Mabee has played a quieter role in recent months, stepping back from the spotlight they once dominated with headliners like General Challenge, Excellent Meeting, Beautiful Melody, and the inimitable Best Pal. But there they were again, those familiar burgundy and gold hued silks flying to victory, carried by Favorite Funtime in the $200,000 Santa Maria Handicap (gr. I) on Feb. 17. Typecast as a sprinter whose talent fizzled in top-class company, the 5-year-old daughter of Seeking the Gold maximized all conditions in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Maria. In a nutshell, both trainer Bob Baffert and rider Gary Stevens knew that Favorite Funtime's fortune depended on gaining an early lead. The plan worked to perfection. Only Printemps was slow from the gate, and entering the first turn, it was Spain who took control. Before they hit the backstretch, however, Favorite Funtime had taken over. With Spain and Queenie Belle close behind, Stevens and Favorite Funtime got through a half in :48.07. Around the far turn, Spain began to move in at the rail, though jockey Victor Espinoza had to work to keep her there. Heading into the stretch, the daughter of Thunder Gulch backed out of contention, leaving Favorite Funtime in control of her own destiny. It wasn't a cakewalk, however. With Spain done and favorite Printemps still toiling in last, the challenge came instead from Verruma. A 6-year-old turf standout from the barn of James Chapman, Verruma moved in under Garrett Gomez, and passing the eighth pole, the Brazilian mare looked poised to leave Favorite Funtime in her wake. The soft pace, though--the mile went in 1:37.64--had left Favorite Funtime just enough fight to hold Verruma off. With Stevens' left hand providing the push and his right arm whipping vigorously, Favorite Funtime prevailed by a desperate head in 1:44.15. Printemps flew into view late to finish third, just missing Verruma by a length. Spain, now in a quest to be North America's all-time female earnings leader, could only muster a fourth-place finish. Her $12,000 check nonetheless saw her slip past $3 million, leaving her just over $276,000 shy of catching Serena's Song. Look for them all to clash again in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) on March 10.
RALI IN THE SAN LUIS OBISPO
The $200,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap (gr. IIT) the day before featured the much-anticipated return of Denon. Most were expecting a coronation. Instead they got a slap in the face. Capitalizing on Denon's misfortune was Michael House's Nazirali, a son of Kahyasi tailor-made for 12 furlongs and beyond. "I knew my horse could go the distance, so I wasn't worried about that," admitted winning rider Brice Blanc, who spent the first mile watching Denon like a hawk. "I was more worried about him. On paper, he looked like a cinch." Denon's undoing came in the form of the monstrous Apache Wings. The Virginia Rapids gelding had cut out an easy mile in 1:37.25 but soon found himself in uncharted waters. His fade from first planted him smack in the face of Denon, who by this time had been left with no outside options. While Apache Wings all but brought Denon to a dead halt along the hedge, Blanc, still sitting last, sent Nazirali around the entire bunch. Nazirali cornered like a German luger and nailed Continental Red just before the finish. They crossed the wire in a knot, Nazirali a neck ahead of Continental Red with Bonapartiste just a neck back in third. Denon, to the dismay of those who backed him at 3-5, wound up finishing fifth. Bred in Ireland by the Aga Khan--thus giving the 5-year-old a direct link to recent Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) heroes Daylami and Kalanisi--Nazirali is the latest European import to prosper in the hands of trainer Julio Canani. Now two-for-three since arriving last fall from France, he could be the one to take the torch from the recently retired Bienamado. "He's just adapted himself beautifully," Blanc said. "He tries, and he's got a huge turn of foot. It's a big advantage going a mile and a half." It was the second straight heartbreaker for Continental Red, who last month dropped a tight one to Irish Prize in the San Marcos Handicap (gr. IIT). The 6-year-old gelding's performance nevertheless affirmed his status as a force among local stayers, leaving jockey Pat Valenzuela to contemplate the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano (gr. IT) in nine weeks. "I think I would have won it," Valenzuela said. "But there were two or three horses that pushed me around the turn and made my horse move a little quicker than I wanted to, and it set it up for the winner. This horse is getting better and better. I don't think he'll beat me in the San Juan."Notes
While the San Luis Obispo made it through the weekend unscathed, the $75,000 San Marino Handicap was rendered a casualty of a brief, overnight downpour. Switched to the main track, the 10-furlong fixture went to Jerry and Ann Moss' Kudos, a homebred Kris S. colt. Richard Mandella is his trainer...Expiating his poor effort in the waterlogged Palos Verdes Handicap (gr. II), Beaumes De Venise came back to beat a strong field going six furlongs on Feb. 13. Owned by a partnership including trainer Craig Dollase, the 6-year-old son of Salt Lake got the distance in 1:09.20 and has won seven of 11 lifetime...The magic carpet ride continues for owner Gordon Severson and trainer Tony Locke as Lady George pulled down another big one on Feb. 16. This time it was the $107,400 Boo La Boo Stakes for Cal-bred 3-year-old fillies. Once a $2,500 yearling afterthought, the daughter of the Vice Regent stallion Lake George now boasts three stakes wins and more than $300,000 in earnings...Going two turns proved a walk in the park for Joey Franco, a promising colt from the Dave Hofmans barn. The 3-year-old son of Avenue of Flags aired by 3 1/2 lengths in a one-mile allowance on Feb. 15 and has now won two straight. He races for breeder Jerry Frankel.