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Hovdey: Gulfstream Turf, Santa Maria deserve staying power

Friday, February 9th, 2018

The victory of Unique Bella in the seven-furlong La Brea Stakes on Dec. 26 has been given considerable credit for her victory in Eclipse Awards voting for outstanding female sprinter.

Beating a quality filly like Paradise Woods by three-quarters of a length after a rousing duel through the stretch gave the season a theatrical flourish. The fact that Unique Bella was able to erase the taste of her uncharacteristic flop in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint spoke volumes about the patience of the Eclipse electorate, which took seriously the description of the championships as embracing all of 2017, start to finish.

It would be nice, for a change, if the opening months of the year would be accorded the same respect. Too often the traditional stakes races of January and February are elbowed aside by events of the spring, summer, and early fall.

On Saturday in Florida, the Gulfstream Park Turf at a mile and one-eighth has lured just enough quality to justify its Grade 1 rating. Heart to Heart and Money Multiplier are the most familiar names; One Go All Go, March, and Revved Up seem poised to raise their game; and the South Americans Hi Happy and Kurilov from Pletcher and Brown add flair. The outsider is Channel Maker, second most recently in the Hollywood Derby, whose trainer, Bill Mott, has won the Gulfstream Park Turf five times.

The race made its debut in 1986 as part of the rich cluster of stakes funded by the Breeders’ Cup and its partner, Budweiser. The beer people eventually bailed, but the Breeders’ Cup lingered until 2007, after which Gulfstream Park was on its own.

At first, the event was run at 1 1/16 miles, then for a long stretch at 1 3/8 miles, interrupted by one-shot renewals at a mile and a quarter and a mile and seven-sixteenths, believed to be the only North American Grade 1 race ever run at 11 1/2 furlongs. Who knew? Since 2009, the event has settled comfortably into nine furlongs and been won by the likes of Kip Deville, Court Vision, Point of Entry, and Mshawish.

The champions of 2017 have been coming out firing on all cylinders. Gun Runner and West Coast put on a show in the Pegasus, while Roy H left no doubt as to his superiority in the Palos Verdes last weekend. Also on Saturday, male turf champ World Approval will dodge the Gulfstream Park Turf and come out instead in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on grass, in what is supposed to be a prep for a race in Dubai.

That same afternoon, Unique Bella will face four brave opponents in the historic Santa Maria at Santa Anita, a race that dates back in name to the track’s first season of 1934. Since 1952 it has been open to older fillies and mares, and since 1957 it has been run at 1 1/16 miles on the main track – a 62-year island of tradition in a sea of constant change.

Among all the 50th anniversaries to be celebrated this year – good, bad, and ugly – the 1968 running of the Santa Maria Handicap won by Hall of Famer Gamely lingers sweetly in the memory.

As the reigning 3-year-old filly champ from 1967, Gamely was part of Jim Maloney’s West Coast stable that included Princessnesian and Desert Law, along with the colts Dewan and Dignitas, all of them owned by William Haggin Perry. Maloney kept them out of each other’s way as much as possible, but when it came to a race like the Santa Maria it was all hands on deck. Over a good track typical of the major stakes that winter, Gamely and Manny Ycaza defeated Princessnesian and Laffit Pincay by three-quarters of a length, while outsider Moog, a daughter of Noor, was a nose back in third.

As key heats go, the Santa Maria held up well the rest of the season. Princessnesian went on to defeat males in the Hollywood Gold Cup, while Gamely added nail-biters in the Santa Margarita, Vanity, Beldame, and the Inglewood against colts to be voted champion of her division. Her finest hour came in the 1968 Californian at Hollywood Park, when she finished second to Dr. Fager.

Following Gamely, four of the next five runnings of the Santa Maria were won by champions Dark Mirage, Gallant Bloom, Turkish Trousers, and Susan’s Girl. Hall of Famers Glorious Song, Bayakoa, Paseana, and Serena’s Song later added their names to the Santa Maria history, but oddly enough, for all their dominance out West neither Zenyatta nor Beholder ever appeared in the race. Unique Bella gives the Santa Maria a chance to regain its championship mojo.

Stone etched in Thoroughbred history

The death of artist Fred Stone this week was cause enough to celebrate a life lived in service of both his immense talent and his love of the Thoroughbred. Stone was not shy about tapping into the emotions set loose by dramatic moments – his portrait of Chris Antley cradling Charismatic’s damaged foreleg in the harrowing moments after the 1999 Belmont Stakes comes first to mind – and his historic montages imbued the Triple Crown winners with a glow not found in simple photographs.

This household is fortunate enough to be presided over by a print of Stone’s image of Colonial Affair and Julie Krone after their 1993 Belmont Stakes victory. It would be special, even if she didn’t live here.

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