Rafael Bejarano will be in the saddle for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel when the Kentucky-bred daughter of Empire Maker faces eleven of her peers in the event that last year launched a seven-race winning streak for Horse of the Year candidate Zenyatta.
Country Star, however, returned to take an allowance event on the turf at Saratoga in August before being idled again. She signaled her comeback readiness Wednesday with a strong five-furlong work (59.60) over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface.
With earnings of $638,865, she will be the most accomplished of the El Encino starters which includes Marty and Pam Wygod’s Life Is Sweet, who outfinished Country Star by
2 ¼ lengths when fourth in the 2008 Ashland.
Lethal Heat is a four-time stakes winner for co-owner and trainer Barry Abrams with her victories including the Grade II Hollywood Oaks at Hollywood Park last June and the Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita in March. Chantal Sutherland will ride the California-bred Unusual Heat filly who has won six of ten starts and earned $438,528. Lethal Heat has demonstrated a keen fondness for synthetic surfaces, winning four of five starts over such footing while third in the other.
Garrett Gomez, the nation’s leading rider in purse earnings the last three years, will climb aboard Life Is Sweet for the first time. The homebred daughter of Storm Cat has not raced since May when second to Raw Silk in the Grade II Sands Point Stakes on turf at Belmont Park.
Five of her seven starts have been on grass with the Ashland her only previous competition over a synthetic surface for trainer John Shirreffs. Life Is Sweet has compiled earnings of $150,810 from two wins and a pair of seconds.
Ginger Pop may be the sharpest of the entrants following a bang-up second to champion Indian Blessing at odds of 47-1 in Santa Anita’s Grade I La Brea Stakes at seven furlongs on Dec. 27.
Trainer Dan Hendricks reckons Ginger Pop received so little support in the wagering because of a tenth place finish in her previous start, the Grade I Del Mar Oaks in August.
“She bruised a heel in the Del Mar Oaks,” Hendricks noted. “It took us six weeks before we could train her again. Once she started training, she was better than ever. The time off gave her a little time to mature and catch up to herself.”
Owned by Thor-Bred Stables, the El Prado offspring will again be ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr. as she takes a 2-3-0 record from seven starts into the El Encino with career earnings of $144,420.
The complete field for the 45th running of the El Encino Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Step Softly, Joel Rosario, 115; Country Star, Rafael Bejarano, 117; Magger Bags, Joseph Talamo, 115; Love to Siphon, Chantal Sutherland, 119; Miss Singhsix, Alex Solis, 117; Czechers, David Flores, 117; Life Is Sweet, Garrett Gomez, 115; Accopela Choir, Martin Garcia, 117; Christmas Ship, Corey Nakatani, 115; Ginger Pop, Jose Valdivia Jr., and Fox Danseur, Mike Smith, 119.
The El Encino is carded as the eighth race on a nine-race program with first post at 12:30 p.m.