Stating with conviction that Sweet Catomine was 100 percent for the Santa Anita Derby is like saying with certainty that the murderers of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman will soon be caught.
Don’t hold your breath.
One thing for sure: the champion filly was as flat as a latke for the race, finishing a non-threatening fifth as the even-money favorite in her first try against males.
At press time, the California Horse Racing Board was investigating the reason for Sweet Catomine’s poor performance. It’s no Kentucky Derby for her, and no Kentucky Oaks, either. Team Marty and Pam Wygod, her owners, and Julio Canani, her skittish trainer, will regroup to fight another day.
At least Sweet Catomine survived. Some great fillies that have raced against males have not. Ruffian and Bug Brush come to mind.
Jeff Mullins, just last month embroiled in an ugly public "milkshake" firestorm, gained vindication when 30-1 outsider Buzzards Bay won the Santa Anita Derby by a half-length, giving Mullins his third consecutive win in the race. He is the first trainer ever to do so in the 68-year history of the event.
It is on to the Kentucky Derby on May 7 for Buzzards Bay and third-place finisher Wilko, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. Whether runner-up General John B, a 64-1 shot trained by Roger Stein, goes on to the Run for the Roses will be decided imminently. Sweet Catomine, meanwhile, will provide fodder for another racing controversy.
"Julio Canani, for one race, is as good a trainer as there is and I know that for him to be nervous, something wasn’t right," Stein said. "This is what happens when 11 horses run in a race and only six belong. But that can be said about my horse—he shouldn’t be in there. If they ran the race tomorrow and they were all fresh, she’d win. She’s still great in my eyes.
"I don’t think she was happy eating all that dirt but to be honest with you, I’ve got to watch the race a few times. I watched it one time. I can’t explain it. You don’t think about the money, you don’t think about the next race. All you’re thinking about is, just fight. Just keep fighting and my horse was doing that. What more could I want?
"I said before the race that my horse would be in the money, but I didn’t care about the price. I didn’t bet on him. I feel bad. I told Mr. (Ross) McLeod, the owner, not to bet. I said, ”˜Why bet? If you lose by a nose you’re only going to be upset.’ Will we go to Kentucky? That’s entirely up to him. I think he’s the kind of guy who would probably leave it up to me but if he says that’s what he wants to do and the horse comes out great, we can try it. But he’s going to know the horse is going to be 30, 40-1 again."
The most likely horse to move forward from the Santa Anita Derby is the bantamweight Wilko, but he faces a daunting task at Churchill Downs. My Kentucky Derby ratings have at least five horses ahead of him: High Limit, Sun King, Illinois Derby winner Greeley’s Galaxy, Wood winner Bellamy Road and Rockport Harbor.
Stein, who hosted a popular one-hour radio program on weekends until foot surgery forced him to abandon it at the end of last year, has not determined when and if he will resume the show, or if he will even continue to train.
"This is a turbulent time in racing," the 51-year-old trainer said. "I haven’t really decided about my future, period, not just with radio but with horses in general. I see a lot of potentially good things coming. Ron Charles being named president of Magna California I think is a huge plus, but I just don’t think one or two people can initiate dramatic changes, so I’m very frustrated. I enjoyed 13 years without missing a radio show but I feel the year off will do me some good. I’ve had a few offers and I don’t want to be disingenuous and tell you that I’m not at the moment considering one of them, but I have no current plans. I’d like to get 20, 25 horses and see if I can still train and if I can’t, then I’ve got to either wash cars or pack groceries at the super market or something."
Here is his Reader’s Digest version on the future of racing in California:
"I think Frank Stronach is full of ideas and he understands what the game needs but he’s surrounded by advisors and business people that say for the short run his ideas are bad. I had him on my radio show when he bought Santa Anita (in December of 1998) and he talked about a $6 admission coupon that got you parking, a program, a $4 food voucher and a $2 wagering voucher. I think singlehandedly that would have helped the game, although the days of the 80,000 crowds are just not going to happen anymore. There’s too much competition and it’s too easy to sit in your living room, bet a couple races you’re interested in and stay home."
”¡ Mike Mitchell has returned permanently to California after setting up a string at Palm Meadows in Florida. The 56-year-old trainer hopes he can stable at Gulfstream Park next year.
"I think it went very well there," Mitchell said. "I was tied for fourth in the standings and had 30 percent winners but I hope I can get stall space at the track next year. Palm Meadows is about an hour from Gulfstream and that was kind of hard on me. It was too much driving."
Mitchell still plans to maintain his California operation.
"I can always come back here (with his Florida horses) if something unforeseen happens, but I’ve got to go where I think the money’s going to be great (read that slots) and you can’t get your foot in the door if you wait too long."