The 36th running of the Grade III, $100,000 Morvich, at 6 ½ furlongs down Santa Anita’s hillside turf course, also attracted defending champion California Flag among ten entrants. It is one of the Breeders’ Cup’s “Win-and-You’re-In” challenge events. The Morvich winner will earn a guaranteed spot among contestants in racing’s international extravaganza.
Desert Code, a 5-year-old chestnut trained by David Hofmans for Tarabilla Farms, returns from 5 ½ months on the sidelines while launching his bid to repeat as a Breeders’ Cup champion over a course he clearly adores, as evidenced by his five wins from eight starts down the hillside.
“I hope he’s fit enough to win his first race back,” said Hofmans, “but he’s been training just super.” Richard Migliore, who flew to California from the East to work Desert Code on Sept. 21, will be back aboard the Kentucky-bred son of E Dubai whom he rode to a 36-1 stunner in last year’s Breeders’ Cup.
“This is so overwhelming, I can’t express myself on how I feel,” the New York native, who turned 45 last March, said following the Turf Sprint upset. “I’ve always had faith in this colt,” he added. Migliore has not ridden Desert Code since the Breeders’ Cup race last Oct. 25.
Following the Breeders’ Cup, Desert Code captured Santa Anita’s Grade III Daytona Handicap over the course, but the millionaire faltered in the one-mile Arcadia Handicap. After another subpar effort in the Grade III San Simeon over the downhill course last April 18, Hofmans turned him out. “He just needed a rest,” said the trainer. “We wanted to have a fresh horse for this year’s Breeders’ Cup.”
Desert Code, who drew post position No. 6 for the Morvich, enters the event with earnings of $1,088,939 from seven victories in 22 lifetime starts. He was assigned 121 pounds, one less than California Flag.
The complete field for the Morvich Handicap, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Cherokee Heaven, Brice Blanc, 114; Perfect Officer, Joel Rosario, 114; California Flag, Joseph Talamo, 122; Stoneside, Martin Pedroza, 116; Tiz West, Rafael Bejarano, 116; Desert Code, Richard Migliore, 121; Flashmans Papers, Agapito Delgadillo, 114; Tenga Cat, Mike Smith, 115; Bruce’s Dream, Garrett Gomez, 112, and Get Funky, Tyler Baze, 116.
While Desert Code can run from behind or as the pace-setter, California Flag prefers the front end as evidenced by his 22-1 upset in last year’s Morvich. With regular rider Joe Talamo in the saddle, the Hi Card Ranch California homebred sailed to a three-length score while setting a course record of 1:11.10 on firm going.
The 5-year-old Avenue of Flags gelding will be reunited with Talamo while breaking from post No. 3 in his attempt to become the third back-to-back winner of the Morvich. Impressive Luck won in 1977 and ’78. El Cielo’s two-year supremacy began in 2000.
Following his Morvich triumph last year, California Flag, trained by Brian Koriner, faded to tenth behind Desert Code in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint after showing the way early. After subsequently winning Hollywood Park’s Grade III Hollywood Turf Express by 4 ½ lengths in wire-to-wire fashion last November, he went to the sidelines for a freshening. The roan gelding came back in August to take Del Mar’s Green Flash Handicap. In addition to a two-race winning streak, he brings earnings of $352,996 from six wins in 14 starts into the Morvich.
The Morvich cast also includes Keith Abraham’s Get Funky, victorious in the 2007 Morvich before finishing as the runner-up to California Flag one year ago. Trained by John Sadler, the 6-year-old Florida-bred checked in ninth, one spot ahead of California Flag, in the 2008 Turf Sprint as the second choice in the Breeders’ Cup event. Tyler Baze rides the horse who has earned $643,905 from seven wins in 23 starts.
Following Wednesday’s opener, Oak Tree will offer the 10-race California Cup program on Saturday with Breeders’ Cup Classic hopeful Grazen the likely favorite in the Cal Cup Classic. Sunday’s card is headed by the Norfolk Stakes and Oak Leaf Stakes, Grade I competitions for 2-year-olds leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.
Oak Tree has moved post times on Fridays, excepting day-one of the Breeders’ Cup, to 2 p.m. while offering free General Admission and free box seating on an as-available basis. “Free Fridays” also offer fans $1 hot dogs, beer, popcorn, sodas and coffee. Excepting Fridays, regular first post time on weekends will be 12:30 p.m.