The way Martin Pedroza, Ultimate Eagle’s 46-year-old jockey, sees it, Game On Dude’s absence simply removes a speed bump on his extraordinary mount’s rise to stardom. Trainer Bob Baffert announced just prior to Wednesday’s post position draw that Game On Dude would make his next start in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31.
Ultimate Eagle will be seeking his sixth win in seven starts, but it wasn’t until his 7 ¼-length rout in the history-rich Grade II Strub Stakes that he would generate such boundless enthusiasm. “He’s like a freak,” said the bedazzled Pedroza. “and, believe me, this horse is just learning how to run.
The Strub marked the first start over dirt for the $70,000 purchase trained by Mike Pender for B. J. Wright, and it could not have boded much better for the Big ’Cap. Ten 4-year-olds, including Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, have parlayed a Strub win into Santa Anita Handicap dominance.
As the starting high weight at 120 pounds, the Kentucky-bred son of Mizzen Mast will break from post position No. 2. If someone tries to run with Ultimate Eagle early, so be it, suggests Pedroza. “I think he’s the speed of the speed,” said the Panamanian-born rider. “If someone wants to go crazy and go with him, they won’t get far.” Little matter what transpires, adds the ultimately confident Pedroza. “You basically can do whatever you want with him,” he said of Ultimate Eagle, “but he runs his best races when he’s up close, on the pace or close to the pace.”
Ultimate Eagle’s three graded stakes victories have been accomplished in wire-to-wire fashion. He comes into Saturday’s classic with earnings of $467,800 from a 5-0-3 record in nine starts.
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, whose Setsuko lost by a nose to Game On Dude one year ago, says his 5-year-old gelding never has been better. “He’s ready to run his best race ever,” Mandella insists. And trainer Julio Canani believes his $25,000 claim, Holladay Road, can be dangerous from behind with top rider Rafael Bejarano at the controls. Canani knows about Big ’Cap longshot winners. He trained Martial Law. Eastern-based trainer Bill Mott, one of the country’s most respected conditioners, will send out a Big ’Cap runner for the first time in Ron the Greek.
Santa Anita Handicap Day’s 11-race program gets underway at 12 noon with gates opening at 10 a.m. Projected post time for the Big ’Cap is 5:15 p.m.
Mr. Commons heads a field of eight in the 53rd running of the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile over the Camino Real turf course. Unbeaten Reneesgotzip heads a cast of eight 3-year-old fillies for the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile. Infield activities will include the availability of over 50 food trucks and music by the band Fallen Riviera.
Should a telling pace duel develop in the Santa Anita Handicap, Setsuko could be one to benefit with his off-the-pace style under 116 pounds including jockey Victor Espinoza. He is the 4-1 second choice on Jon White’s morning line. But the 5-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding is something of an enigma. There was the bang-up second at long odds in last year’s Big ’Cap, yet Setsuko has never won any kind of stakes race in 17 trips to the post.
Wertheimer and Frere’s homebred has, however, earned $506,486 with seconds in such events as the 2010 Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Park’s Grade II Californian in addition to the Santa Anita Handicap while compiling a 2-6-3 record. Mandella thinks he may have recently taken action that will elevate Setsuko.
After finishing ninth in last summer’s Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Setsuko was gelded. He returned to the races on Feb. 4 at Santa Anita with a sparkling 2 ¼ length victory over Fiddlers Afleet in an allowance race. The time for his second career victory while going 1 1/16 miles was a brisk 1:41. Setsuko’s recent works, according to Mandella, have been “awesome.” The trainer, who has saddled three Santa Anita Handicap winners, appears genuinely confident.
On paper, Ron the Greek might not bear credentials comparable to the major contenders. But, if Mott thinks enough of him to ship cross country, respect is warranted. Five-year-old Ron the Greek is coming off a solid second behind Mucho Macho Man in the $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28. He won minor stakes in his two previous starts at Aqueduct. The only graded stakes victory on his 5-3-1 record in 16 starts came in the Grade III Le Comte Stakes at the Fair Grounds in January of 2010. Ron the Greek, who employs a versatile style, has earned $319,665. He is listed at 6-1.
A deep closer in the largely speed-laden field is Canani’s 7-year-old gelding Holladay Road, claimed for $25,000 on behalf of Gary and Wendy Broad last summer at Del Mar. Holladay Road has closed strongly to win 3 of his last 4 starts including the Jan. 28 Crystal Water Stakes. The California-bred son of Street Cry may be facing a tall order, but he wouldn’t be the first claimed California-bred to capture the Big ’Cap. Two-time winner Lava Man became the richest claimed horse in history. Oddsmaker White has Holladay Road pegged at 8-1.
With Game On Dude being prepared to be sent overseas, Baffert’s hopes of winning a third successive Santa Anita Handicap will rest with Prayer for Relief and jockey Martin Garcia. The 4-year-old colt owned by Zayat Stables finished third, 9 ½ lengths behind Ultimate Eagle in the Strub Stakes. Prayer for Relief nevertheless is the richest of the Big ’Cap starters with earnings of $1,057,225. Baffert artfully managed the Jump Star colt through a succession of derby victories last year: Grade III Iowa Derby, Grade II West Virginia Derby and Grade II Super Derby before finishing third in the Oklahoma Derby. Prayer for Relief is listed at odds of 8-1.
The complete field for the Santa Anita Handicap, with jockeys, weights and morning line odds in post position order: Uh Oh Bango, Mike Smith, 117, 6-1; Ultimate Eagle, Martin Pedroza, 120, 5-2; Ron the Greek, Jose Lezcano,116, 6-1; Boxeur de Rues, Mario Gutierrez, 112, 50-1; Thirtyfirststreet, Eswan Flores, 114, 30-1; Twice the Appeal, Christian Santiago Reyes, 114, 30-1; Fiddlers Afleet, Kevin Krigger, 110, 50-1; Gladding, Joel Rosario, 116, 12-1; Setsuko, Victor Espinoza, 116, 4-1; Norvsky, Joseph Talamo, 118, 6-1; Prayer for Relief, Martin Garcia, 117, 8-1; Holladay Road, Rafael Bejarano, 114, 8-1, and Victory Pete, Corey Nakatani, 114, 50-1.
Mr. Commons is coming into the Kilroe Mile off a pair of Grade II victories at the distance and over the course. He followed his 3 ¼-length victory in the Sir Beaufort Stakes on Dec. 26 with a powerful one-length score at 2-5 odds in the Arcadia Stakes on Feb. 4.
Trained by John Shirreffs for St. George Farm Racing, the 4-year-old Artie Schiller homebred has posted a 4-2-0 record in seven starts on grass with his only off-the-board finish a highly troubled trip when fifth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs last Nov. 5.
Regular rider Mike Smith will be aboard when Mr. Commons attempts to even the score with Jeranimo, who defeated the fast-closing odds-on choice by three-quarters of a length in the Grade II Oak Tree Mile last October. The pair shares high weight of 120 pounds.
Jeranimo, a stablemate of Ultimate Eagle trained by Pender for Wright, came up a half-length short in last year’s Kilroe Mile when rallying strongly to wind up third behind Fluke and Caracortado. Garcia will ride the 6-year-old son of Congaree who has earned $840,400 from an overall record of 7-5-4 in 25 starts.
The complete field for the Kilroe Mile (10th race), with jockeys and weights in post position order: Mr. Commons, Smith, 120; Jimmy Simms, Nakatani, 118; Willyconker, Rosario, 118; Compari, Bejarano, 118; Jeranimo, Garcia, 120; Massone, Alonso Quinonez, 118; Make Music for Me, Chantal Sutherland, 118, and Mega Heat, Talamo, 118.
Reneesgotzip, a Kentucky-bred daughter of City Zip trained by Peter Miller for the Lanni Family Trust, will be heavily favored to continue her sizzling streak when negotiating two turns for the first time in the Las Virgenes.
“We’ll see what happens,” said jockey Corey Nakatani, who reasoned that her style while sprinting suggested success routing. “She goes to the front and improves her position,” he said simply. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Reneesgotzip began her career with a wire-to-wire win at odds of 8-1 while defeating Baffert’s odds-on favorite Eden’s Moon by 2 ¼ lengths going six furlongs. Her next race was better yet, as she took the Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs by 7 ¾ lengths. In the meantime, Eden’s Moon had come back to break her maiden by 11 ½ lengths while racing one mile.
In the Las Virgenes, Reneesgotzip will have to deal with three rivals who are stakes winners while routing, all at 1 1/16 miles: Killer Graces (Hollywood Park’s Grade I Starlet); Willa B Awesome (Santa Anita’s Grade III Santa Ysabel) and Charm the Maker (Hollywood Park’s Sharp Cat Stakes).
The complete field for the Las Virgenes Stakes (9th race), with jockeys and weights in post position order: Your Special Day, Smith, 117; Charm the Maker, Rosario, 117; Willa B Awesome, Pedroza, 119; Killer Graces, Talamo, 122; Eden’s Moon, Garcia, 117; Made to Love Her, Bejarano, 117; Reneesgotzip, Nakatani, 117, and Open Water, Espinoza, 117.