‘Best filly that ever lived’
in Santa Anita Derby

Apr 5, 2005 4:16 AM

Julio Canani says Sweet Catomine is the best filly that ever lived. Her jockey, Corey Nakatani, says she’s the best filly he’s ever ridden, and the pugnacious little guy has ridden champions Jewel Princess, Serena’s Song and Sharp Cat.

Sweet Catomine will have an opportunity to solidify the vested opinions of Canani and Nakatani Saturday when she tackles the boys in the Santa Anita Derby, the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

With last year’s undefeated male 2-year-old champion Declan’s Moon sidelined from a chip in his left knee, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite Roman Ruler recovering from a persistent quarter crack on his left fore and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Wilko trying to overcome a quarter crack to his right fore and still make the race, outside of Sweet Catomine, the 68th Santa Anita Derby is not overflowing with star quality.

It would have been worthy of 144-point roar headlines had Declan’s Moon stayed healthy and met Sweet Catomine in the Grade I race at 1 1/8 miles. It would have made history, in fact, marking the first time Eclipse Award winners at two squared off in Santa Anita’s marquee race for three year olds.

Ron Ellis, who trains Declan’s Moon, will go to the bench for the Santa Anita Derby. The 44-year-old trainer will saddle Don’t Get Mad, certainly better than an empty stall, but loser of his two starts as a 3-year-old after winning his only two races last year. Ellis must play the hand he’s dealt, but it will take some doing before he’s convinced Sweet Catomine is mistress of all she surveys.

"I was more impressed with her as a 2-year-old than I am now," Ellis said. "She might prove me wrong but I think she has to take it to the next level. She’s beat up on some bad fillies. I think if you put these colts in against Memorette (second by three lengths behind Sweet Catomine in the Santa Anita Oaks), they’d win by 10 and look just as impressive. That’s my feeling."

Ellis once raced a stakes-winning female against males, a 5-year-old mare named Exotic Wood who finished fourth behind Elmhurst in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Hollywood Park.

"That was the only Breeders’ Cup race for her," said Ellis, who would have preferred running her either against her own sex or at a distance longer than six furlongs. "But she wasn’t ready to run long at the time."

Sweet Catomine is. Canani and Marty Wygod, who owns the filly with his wife, Pam, stated after the March 13 Santa Anita Oaks that the Santa Anita Derby was their next objective. Asked if she could lose the Santa Anita Derby and still go on to the Kentucky Derby, Wygod offered one caveat.

"If she got stopped or blocked and didn’t win, I think we would consider going on to the Kentucky Derby anyway," he said. "But that would be the only other scenario."

Three fillies have won the Santa Anita Derby: Ciencia in 1939, Silver Spoon in 1959, and Winning Colors in 1988. Only Winning Colors went on to win the Run for the Roses, leading throughout to hold off Forty Niner by a neck, after winning at Santa Anita by eight lengths.

Nakatani says Sweet Catomine is not a "push-button horse" in the sense that you can ask her and she takes off.

"She’s not all that easy to ride," he said. "She’s got that Storm Cat blood in her and she gets hot and wants to do things her own way. All I do is try to finesse her and give her confidence to win the race. When I set her down to go I keep her focused, but the ability’s got to be there for you to do that with any horse, and she’s got it."

No denying that. Sweet Catomine is one talented race horse, the undisputed leader of her sex in an otherwise undistinguished division. But the best filly that ever lived?

Ruffian must be turning over in her grave.

THE HOMESTRETCH

This just out: "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies," a 384-page book of basic tips to gain a winning edge, authored by Rich Eng, racing writer and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, columnist for Daily Racing Form and host of "Race Day Las Vegas Wrap-up Show" on local radio station KSHP 1400 AM.

The primer for novice horse players covers grass-roots material essential for beating the ponies (without a whip) and is available at all major book stores. Eng, a former publicist for Santa Anita, drafted this endeavor on his own. There were no ghosting credits for Jeff Mullins. Otherwise, the book might have been titled, "Betting on Horse Racing for Idiots."

”¡ At Santa Anita next year, a bust of Chris McCarron will be placed alongside those of Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., Johnny Longden and Charlie Whittingham. Eddie Delahoussaye was asked if he would like to have his statue join the elite group. "No," Eddie D. said. "I don’t want birds (bleeping) on my head."