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Hovdey: Brown follows mentor in conquering Matriarch

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

It’s okay now. The coast is clear. All the bad men have taken their horses and gone home. Yes, Del Mar was left smoldering like a village plundered by Cossacks. But at least they left behind the sun, the sand, and the cool blue of an unsympathetic Pacific Ocean.

One by one the major races of the long Thanksgiving weekend went to a relay of East Coast trainers, most of them having previously considered Del Mar little more than a stray item on an inconsequential bucket list. Between the Breeders’ Cup and the holiday stakes bash, if I had a nickel for every horseman who said, “This is my first trip to Del Mar,” I’d have a bunch of nickels. You’d think the place was in North Korea.

Anyway, that was before the pickings were revealed as easy.

The carnage commenced Friday, when Manitoulin took the Hollywood Turf Cup for Darby Dan Farm and Jimmy Toner, who enjoyed the sight from the comfort of his Long Island home.

Chicago Style, trained by Tom Proctor, made a gallant run at Manitoulin from deep in the pack but gave away too much ground on the final turn and came up a neck short. That would have been some California consolation, since Chicago Style had been part of Glen Hill’s West Coast contingent. “Think I can get away with running him for $16,000 again this winter at Tampa?” wondered Proctor, who knew he couldn’t.

On Saturday, Tony Dutrow made his Del Mar debut with Coolmore’s Mo Town, a picture-perfect son of Uncle Mo who stole the show from Sharp Samurai and Big Score in the Hollywood Derby. Those two rivals finished under a blanket with Eastern invader Channel Maker, trained by Bill Mott, just noses apart, but all three were swallowed in the final yards by Mo Town’s closing kick. Making only his second start on grass, Mo Town ran the fastest nine furlongs in the derby’s four runnings at Del Mar.

Saturday ended with a 1-2-3 Eastern sweep of the Grade 3 Jimmy Durante Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Joe Bravo produced a daring rail ride before tipping clear to win the mile event by a length aboard Daddy Is a Legend, by Scat Daddy, for trainer George Weaver, while Data Dependent (Chad Brown) edged Raucous (Christophe Clement) for third.

Then came Sunday, and the final blows.

The outcome of the Grade 3 Cecile B. DeMille for 2-year-old colts seemed like a foregone conclusion the moment Chad Brown put Analyze It on a plane from New York, and it was. William Lawrence’s budding superstar delivered with a 4 1/2-length cruise under Jose Ortiz.

The Matriarch, however, was a tougher challenge, even though there were no Grade 1 winners in the Grade 1 event. You wouldn’t have known it from the running.

Off Limits, one of a pair trained by Brown, flew home late for Joel Rosario and owner Martin Schwartz to catch Hawksmoor, trained by Arnaud Delacour, at the end of a mile on firm ground. Insta Erma caught favored Cambodia for third.

While assistant Jose Hernandez did the Del Mar honors, even in absentia Brown cherished his first Matriarch title.

“This win meant so much,” he texted in a reply immediately after the race.

As a former Bobby Frankel acolyte, Brown was conditioned to treat the race as a rare gem, to be collected as often as possible. Frankel doted on his grass mares, and they returned the affection by winning eight Matriarchs in a span of 11 runnings at three different distances while offered at Hollywood Park.

It would have been nine had Frankel lived long enough to see Ventura take the 2009 Matriarch, which was run just 12 days after his death, following his year-long battle with cancer. Humberto Ascanio, Frankel’s longtime assistant, ascended temporarily to head man before owners began sending their horses elsewhere.

Two years after Frankel’s death, Ascanio suffered a stroke that affected his mobility and led to his retirement as a public trainer. Ascanio eventually recovered enough to spend time at the track, and Brown has kept the flame alive, insisting that Humberto be front and center whenever the stable sends a rocket to California.

Right on cue, there was Ascanio in the picture with Off Limits, waving the celebratory bottle of winner’s circle sponsor Maker’s Mark like a cowpoke just in from the trail. He was asked if he was, in fact, Brown’s lucky charm.

“I don’t know about that,” Ascanio said. “But he is a good friend. If he wants me here when his horses run, I can’t say no.”

Brown’s Del Mar weekend extended his lead atop the national purse standings, as he heads for what is likely to be a second straight Eclipse Award.

“When he came to work for us, he wanted to follow Bobby around, to learn how to be a trainer,” Ascanio said of Brown. “Bobby told him to go follow me instead. ‘You don’t want to be a trainer,’ Bobby said. ‘You want to be a horseman. That you will learn from Humberto.’ ”

Ascanio, 69, has been approached by New York-based David Jacobson to assist with the handling of a string at Santa Anita this winter alongside Howard Jacobson, the trainer’s son. Ascanio preferred not to raise expectations, and made it clear he wouldn’t be doing any heavy lifting, literally or figuratively.

“I’ll help how I can,” Ascanio said. “If the young man wants to learn, I will do my best to teach him.”

Ask Chad how that worked out.

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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