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Hovdey: City of Light justifiably McCarthy's big horse

Friday, May 25th, 2018

If you’re waiting for City of Light to run a bad race, bring a book. Like, for instance, “War and Peace.”

He was slow to get rolling – most huge boulders are – but he was never anywhere but right there through his first four starts in conditioned company. For City of Light’s first stakes appearance, still with only a maiden win to his name, trainer Michael McCarthy chose the Grade 1 Malibu on Santa Anita’s opening day last Dec. 26. Such a move appeared ambitious on paper, but only to those who were not spending time around City of Light every day.

“It was time,” McCarthy said. “He was ready to make that jump.”

City of Light passed like a pro, winning wire to wire by two lengths. Now, two more stakes wins later, the big colt is being tested once again with his first try at a mile and a quarter in the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita on Saturday.

The Gold Cup, formerly the marquee event at Hollywood Park, has attracted Santa Anita Handicap winner Accelerate and Californian Stakes winner Dr. Dorr among its field of seven. The flashy program also features the Grade 1 Gamely and the Grade 2 Whittingham, both on the grass.

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With just seven starts to his name, City of Light seems to be doing everything for the first time, and doing it well. After passing the seven-furlong Malibu test, he defeated open company for the first time in the Grade 1 Triple Bend, also at seven-eighths. McCarthy then upped the stakes, putting City of Light on a plane and tackling nine furlongs in the Oaklawn Handicap of April 14. The result was a neck victory over Accelerate, who was fresh from victory in the Santa Anita Handicap.

City of Light got three pounds that day from his rival and gets four in the Gold Cup, 125 to 121, under allowance conditions that penalize Accelerate’s two stakes wins beyond a mile this year. Still, Accelerate is proven at the distance and City of Light is not.

“There is no such thing as a perfect scenario this time of year,” McCarthy said. “But he’s been so versatile. It looked like he handled the added quarter of a mile from the Triple Bend to the Oaklawn Handicap easily enough. Throwing another eighth of a mile at him, I don’t know. But I’d rather find out now and chart my course for the rest of the summer.”

City of Light is a son of Quality Road out of a mare by the late Dehere, a 2-year-old champion. He cost William Warren $710,000 as a Keeneland yearling.

He also weighs in at around 1,250 pounds, which sets him apart as a training challenge.

“There’s a lot of force landing on those joints,” McCarthy said. “But he’s been a remarkably sound horse, with a nice disposition. He’s got a great will to train, and he likes tipping his hand in the morning. He just does everything a good athlete would do.”

City of Light worked most recently last Saturday in an official 1:11.40 for six furlongs.

“He actually worked five-eighths,” McCarthy said. “They went ahead and gave him a three-quarter time.”

Even better.

“I’m sure Justify is 1,250, maybe a bit more,” McCarthy said, summoning the name of the Derby and Preakness winner. “But as far as big horses go, he’s as good as any I’ve seen who are that size.”

McCarthy gets to be taken seriously saying something like that because of his long tenure as Todd Pletcher’s second in command. The context of McCarthy’s experience with Pletcher spans the careers of champions like Rags to Riches, Uncle Mo, Wait a While, Ashado, Lawyer Ron, Fleet Indian, and English Channel, as well as classic winners Super Saver and Palace Malice. Not for nothing, Pletcher won six Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer while McCarthy was on the payroll.

Now in his fifth year on his own, McCarthy is emerging from Pletcher’s shadow for all the right reasons. Unlike Wayne Lukas, who wears the success of his former assistants (like Pletcher) on his sleeve, Pletcher chooses not to bask in reflected glories, as he continues to add to his all-time leading purse accumulation of more than $360 million. It also helps that McCarthy does business on the other side of the continent from Pletcher’s New York base.

McCarthy’s first-hand experience in the Gold Cup goes back to the 2003 running at Hollywood Park, when he accompanied Harlan’s Holiday west for Pletcher. They finished second that day, beaten three lengths by Congaree.

There is a chance that this will be the last time around for the Gold Cup, whose half-million purse could be put to use in the service of a reimagined Santa Anita Handicap in the not-too-distant future. The fact that Santa Anita management carried the race this long, five years after the close of Hollywood Park, is a bonus. And nothing can erase a Gold Cup history that includes winners like Seabiscuit, Swaps, Round Table, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Cigar, Lava Man, and Game On Dude.

“Obviously, in Hollywood’s heyday there was a who’s who of handicap horses who ran in it and won it,” McCarthy said. “Things are a little different now. But it’s still a Gold Cup, it’s still a Grade 1, it’s $500,000, and it’s still very much worth winning.”

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