ARCADIA, Calif. (Nov. 5, 2009) – A Grade I winner last year before going to the sidelines for 17 months, the 6-year-old gray gelding Ever a Friend made an impressive return to the races on Thursday when he nailed down Oak Tree’s $43,800 Caterman Purse by 1 ¼ lengths over pace-setter Banner Lodge.

Ever a Friend clearly demonstrated that he is back in form following a prolonged recovery from ankle surgery when he covered the 6 ½ furlongs over Santa Anita’s downhill turf course in 1:11.95, not far removed from the course record of 1:11.13.

Regular rider Tyler Baze was back in the saddle as Ever a Friend tracked the early pace while racing in fourth, moved to the outside entering the stretch, and methodically wore down the game 15-1 front-runner ridden by Mike Smith. Cherokee Heaven, with Brice Blanc aboard, closed for third, one length behind Banner Lodge.

Despite his extended layoff, Ever a Friend was embraced by the public off his past class and a series of swift works in preparation for his comeback. He was made the even-money favorite in a field that included three others who had competed in graded stakes events in their previous starts.

Ever a Friend returned $4, $3.20 and $2.20. The second longest shot in the lineup, Banner Lodge paid $9.80 and $5.20. The show price on Cherokee Heaven was $3.40.

The victorious Kentucky-bred son of Crafty Friend had won the Impressive Luck Stakes over Santa Anita’s downhill layout on New Year’s Eve of 2007, his first start for trainer Mike Mitchell since being claimed for $62,500.

Acting for the partnership of Dan Capen and Steve, Charlene and Jeff Ustin, Mitchell proceeded to move Ever a Friend into Grade I stakes competition. He responded with a 3 ¾-length upset at 9-1 odds in Santa Anita’s Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap in March of last year.

Following a second to Daytona in Hollywood Park’s Grade I Shoemaker Mile on May 8, 2008, Ever a Friend went on the shelf for surgery to remove a bone chip from his ankle.

The layoff took longer than Mitchell had expected, but Ever a Friend looked much like his former self on Thursday. The winning purse of $25,800 increased his career earnings to $466,568 from an overall record of 6-3-2 in 20 starts.

“He’s a lovely horse, and we’ve given him a lot of time,” said the veteran trainer. “I really wanted him for the Breeders’ Cup, but we ran out of time.”

Mitchell said the new target would be Hollywood Park’s $300,000 Citation Handicap on Nov. 25.

Oak Tree’s two-day presentation of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships gets underway Friday at 11:15 a.m. with two allowance races prior to the series of six Breeders’ Cup events culminating with the $2 million Ladies’ Classic. Oak Tree’s Grade II Las Palmas Handicap wraps up the day’s racing at approximately 4:25 p.m. Advance wagering on Saturday’s races will be offered on Friday.