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Nothing false with Sham as Derby prospects meet

Feb 26, 2008 3:23 AM

As racing correspondent for USA Today a while back, it was brought to my attention by their assignment editor that America’s newspaper could care less about the Santa Anita Handicap, a race steeped in tradition, which has seen the likes of Seabiscuit, Round Table, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Best Pal and Lava Man grace its winners’ circle.

Instead, USA Today wanted coverage focused on a relatively obscure 3-year-old stakes race leading to the Derby, and not the Santa Anita Handicap, which was being run the same day.

Such is the obsessive infatuation with the world’s most famous race at Churchill Downs, this year on May 3, and why the 71st running of the so-called "Big ’Cap" will take a back seat in interest to the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. The Santa Anita Handicap, a Grade I race worth $1 million, will be duly recognized, but attention given the Sham, which offers $200,000 and is being run for only the eighth time and just recently received graded status, will border on being obsequious (look it up).

The reason is simple: with two of the West Coast’s most heralded Kentucky Derby prospects set to run in the Sham, it is the region’s most definitive Derby prep race to date.

The two are undefeated El Gato Malo, who established a Santa Anita track record for one mile in the San Rafael Stakes, albeit it over a Cushion Track that, in an effort to overcome drainage problems, had been squashed to the texture of road kill; and Real Quiet winner Colonel John, who, surviving a precarious training schedule, will make his 3-year-old debut after finishing second as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity last Dec. 22.

Crown of Thorns, impressive winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, was ticketed for the Sham and would have added even greater intrigue, but the $300,000 son of Repent suffered an injury to his left shin last week and is off the Triple Crown trail. Trainer Richard Mandella said the colt is expected to miss at least two months.

The Sham, at 11/8 miles, is a prelude to the ultimate goal at 11/4 miles, the 134th Run for the Roses. Trainer Eoin (pronounced Owen) Harty, for one, is confident the remaining time will allow Colonel John to reach the Derby at his peak, although the former assistant to three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert realizes there is little margin for error.

"We have plenty of time if the track cooperates," said the 45-year-old Harty, a Dublin native who hails from a family of Irish horsemen that extends back at least five generations. "It hasn’t been easy out here this winter, what with the track and the weather and one thing after another. It certainly hasn’t been ideal to prepare a horse, but I think the horse is good enough. He’s maintained his level of fitness pretty easily, so I think he should run accordingly."

Colonel John, owned and bred by the Versailles, Ky-based WinStar Farm of Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner, was sired by 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow, the only thoroughbred to win the 11/4 mile Breeders’ Cup Classic back-to-back (2000 and 2001). Understandably, Harty has little concern that his colt can win at 10 furlongs.

"I don’t anticipate the distance will be a problem," he said. "I think he’s good enough."

But will he be good enough to conquer a band of peers rich in quality, even by Harty’s acknowledgment.

"I would think this is a pretty good 3-year-old crop," he said. "The horses that ran at two and showed good form seemed to have maintained it at this stage of their 3-year-old career, which is usually a pretty good sign that they’re good horses. Georgie Boy is a good horse and Into Mischief came back and ran well, as did Pyro (dazzling last-to-first winner of the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds)."

Harty had reservations about El Gato Malo’s San Rafael victory run over a surface that produced super-fast times which are raising questions about their validity.

"I would have to see him on a different surface," said Harty, who would be participating in his first Derby outright should Colonel John get there. Harty, who came to the United States at 17, has trained all over the world including Dubai for Godolphin and Darley Stud. He won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies for Godolphin with Tempera, who earned an Eclipse Award for her efforts.

But winning the Kentucky Derby would be a defining moment.

"That," said Harty, "will make or break your career."

The homestretch

The owner of the lone winning Pick Six ticket that paid a Santa Anita record $3,120,256 last Monday after a three-day carryover bought it at The Meadowlands in New Jersey with an investment of $4,320. But the New York City resident, who identified himself only as "D," (for David) was lucky on two counts: he almost didn’t reach the track to make the bet, and when he got there, at first he didn’t have enough money.

Word is he had to travel to Jersey since New York OTB at that time wasn’t taking action on Santa Anita, and he got to The Meadowlands 15 minutes before the first leg of the Pick Six. He purchased a $4,000 voucher when he arrived at The Meadowlands, but when he went to bet his Pick Six, realized it totaled $4,320. He searched his pockets and came up with an additional $331, just enough to make his wager and buy a couple of hot dogs for lunch.

"I’ve been playing horses for a long time," said "D,"who once hit a $500,000 Pick Six at Del Mar, "so this does not really change anything for me. I’m getting married soon, so it is great timing. I’m still in shock. There are large syndicates playing the Pick Six and I’m sure there were some that put $40,000 or $50,000 into the pool."

”¡ And here’s News You Can Bet On: When Santa Anita replaces its hodge-podge synthetic track after this meet, it will be with Tapeta, the same surface installed at Golden Gate, which, like Santa Anita, is owned by Magna.