Returning to the venue of his greatest triumphs, 7-year-old gelding California Flag turned back the calendar Monday to become the first three-time winner of Santa Anita's Grade III, $100,000 Morvich Stakes and perhaps earn himself another shot at the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint that he won in 2009.
Sent off at odds of 6-1 after not having registered a victory since Del Mar's Green Flash Handicap in August of 2010, California Flag rallied from just off the pace to defeat Excessive Passion by one-half length over the 6 ½ furlongs of Santa Anita's hillside turf course while timed in 1:11.91.
The final time didn't quite match the gray gelding's course record of 1:11.10 he had set in capturing the 2008 Morvich, nor his 1:11.40 in repeating the next year, nor his 1:11.20 in winning the Breeders' Cup event. But it was a stunning reflection of the California-bred's heart in a race that could have led to retirement.
“If he doesn't run good, he'll probably be retired,” trainer Brian Koriner had said prior to California Flag separating himself from Morvich two-time winners El Cielo (2000 & 2001) and Impressive Luck (1977 & 1978) in the event's 38th running.
Another Breeders' Cup prospect emerged from Monday's Columbus Day program when Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's Secret Circle blitzed his juvenile opposition by 5 ¼ lengths in the $71,340 Jack Goodman Stakes while blazing six furlongs in 1:08.27.
Even Baffert was taken aback. “I'm sort of half-shocked the way he ran,” said Baffert. “He doesn't show that in the mornings. It's amazing. That's a fast horse.”
So fast, in fact, that Baffert's immediate aim is the new $500,000 Breeders' Cup Sprint for two-year-olds at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. “That's what our goal is,” he said, “if all's well.”
Koriner, meantime, was non-committal about another Breeders' Cup for California Flag. “I don't know,” he said. “We'll talk about it. We didn't know what to expect. We'll see what happens.”
“He ran a great race,” said Patrick Valenzuela, who did the navigating on the holiday Monday. “I had horse coming across the dirt. He just kicked on and fought it out hard. He's a fighter.”
Excessive Passion, who had contested the early lead under Joel Rosario, held on for second by one-half length over Ain't No Other and jockey Garrett Gomez. Camp Victory, the 4-5 favorite, never reached serious contention while finishing fifth in the field of eight.
California Flag, third choice in the wagering, paid $15.40, $9.80 and $6. Excessive Passion returned mutuels of $14.40 and $9.20. Ain't No Other, second choice at 5-1, paid $4.60 to show. It was California Flag's fourth win in six trips over Santa Anita's unique downhill grass layout.
“He's a nice old horse,” Koriner said in admiration. “It's just nice to see him back and people can quit criticizing (for running him at the age of seven). Patrick Valenzuela rode him perfectly. He sat right behind that other horse (Excessive Passion), got him to relax, and then he spurted away. He grinds it out. At the end, nobody was making any impact.”
The homebred son of Avenue of Flags owned by the Hi Card Ranch of the late Keith Card and his wife, Barbara, added $60,000 to his earnings. They were elevated to $1,218,825 from a 10-0-2 record in 24 lifetime starts.
A 7 ¼-length winner of his maiden debut at Del Mar in July, Secret Circle displayed the kind of inherent ability that may indicate he could stretch out to become a serious 20012 Triple Crown candidate in the Goodman Stakes. His time for 5 ½ furlongs over Del Mar's Polytrack surface had been 1:03.40.
With Rafael Bejarano in the irons, the son of Eddington tracked the pace in third through fractions of 21.31 and 44.20 in the Goodman. Secret Circle took command in midstretch and swiftly drew away from his pursuers.
“When I came to the stretch, I was clear and he just took off,” Bejarano said in the winner's circle. “It was unbelievable. He ran better than the last time. I didn't use the whip. I just galloped and cruised.
“He was different today. He felt much better on the dirt. He took a little dirt in the face, but he was fine and just kept running. He's going to be even better next time.”
Galex, ridden by Joe Talamo, got up for second, a neck in front of third-place Panettone with Victor Espinoza aboard. Sweet Swap, the 5-2 second choice, was not a factor while checking in fifth in the field of six.
The well-supported winner paid $3.20, $2.40 and $2.10. Galex returned $8.20 and $2.10. The show mutuel on Panettone was $3.60.
A $165,000 auction purchase in April by the partnership of Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, Secret Circle earned $41,190 to bring his two-race total to $78,990. The ownership group won the 2010 Preakness with Lookin At Lucky.
Following dark days on Tuesday and Wednesday, racing resumes on Thursday at Santa Anita with an eight-race program that gets underway at 1 p.m.
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