Chris McCarron believes Debonaire Junior could be more than just a good sprinter. And, there are trainers at Santa Anita who wish that Noble Threewitt would try stretching him out, thereby getting the speedy 4-year-old gelding out of their hair.
Threewitt, the 73-year-old trainer who was winning races when Santa Anita first opened 50 years ago, blanched when Debonaire Junior was assigned top weight of 125 pounds for Sunday's $111,550 San Carlos Handicap. Debonaire Junior ran, anyhow, spotting the five other entrants from 7-to-13 pounds, and beat a 15-to-1 longshot, Tennessee Rite, by three-fourths of a length before a crowd of 48,452.
Jack Rogers, the 77-year-old Los Angeles real estate investor who bred and owns Debonaire Junior, can call Threewitt " kid" and get away with it. The San Carlos win was worth $64,300 to Rogers, who picked up his first victory in a $100,000 race and declared afterward that Debonaire Junior is the best horse he's ever owned.
"Annie-Lu-San was a nice mare," Rogers said, "and she was the best until this one came along. But I'd have to say now that Debonaire Junior's the best."
Annie-Lu-San won the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park in both 1957 and '58.
"She might have won it the following year, too," Rogers said, "but Ted West, who trained her, liked to go slowly with horses and didn't run her the third time."
Debonaire Junior, who won half of his 14 starts last year, is now at the track where his win percentage is considerably higher. Sunday's victory was his sixth in nine starts at Santa Anita, and the public played the horse that way, sending him off as the 9-10 favorite. Debonaire Junior, timed in 1:21 3/5 for seven furlongs, paid $3.80, $2.80 and $2.20. Tennessee Rite paid $6.40 and $3 and Fifty Six Ina Row, who had a rough trip, finished three lengths behind the winner and returned $2.60.
Jack Van Berg, the trainer for Tennessee Rite, is one of those people who might prefer to see Debonaire Junior running in longer races. In the Palos Verdes Handicap on Dec. 30, another Van Berg sprinter, Charging Falls, also finished second to Debonaire Junior.
"Sooner or later," Van Berg said, "I'll find somebody to beat him."
McCarron, who has ridden Debonaire Junior in his last 12 starts, said, "I think this horse will go longer this year than he did last year. The only time he went a distance, he stumbled coming out of the gate and also bled from a quarter crack in the race."
That was at 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park last July, when Debonaire Junior finished last in the Bel Air Handicap. It's been seven furlongs or less for the horse ever since.
While Patrick McFig, Tennessee Rite and Fifty Six Ina Row battled for the early lead, Debonaire Junior settled into fourth place. On the turn, Fifty Six Ina Row got bumped by Patrick McFig and after getting back into gear took the lead along the rail in the upper stretch.
Tennessee Rite, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, moved ahead midway through the stretch, but Debonaire Junior closed the quickest on the outside.
"I thought we'd go by Shoe's horse," McCarron said, "but then he drifted out a little and my horse seemed to hang. But Shoe's horse started running straight again, and that's when my horse moved by him."
Not having a mount in the ninth race, McCarron made a quick exit out the back door of the jockeys' room, heading for a home he and his wife, Judy, are building in Utah.
Only Debonaire Junior moved quicker Sunday.
Horse Racing Notes
Princess Rooney, champion older filly or mare last year, has been retired. Trainer Neil Drysdale said that the gray mare's owners, Paula and Jim Tucker, are now in Kentucky looking at stallions who might be a possible mate for Princess Rooney this breeding season. . . . Pat Day, the 1984 Eclipse Award winner as the nation's outstanding jockey, rode Skywalker, a 3-year-old colt trained by Michael Whittingham, to victory in the fourth race. "This colt impresses me," said Day, who's basically on vacation until Oaklawn Park opens next month. "He's maturing quickly, and I even liked him in the race at Hollywood Park. He finished fifth, but broke in a tangle, got into trouble a couple of times and still finished with a lot of run." That was the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 16. Day thought he would work Wild Again, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, between races, but the horse had already galloped Sunday morning. . . . Jack Kent Cooke is now running the Elmendorf horses in his name, with Party Leader finishing fourth in the San Carlos. Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins and former owner of the Lakers, Kings and the Forum, purchased Elmendorf Farm in Kentucky last month, but the sale is being challenged by the Wilmot brothers, who also bid for the property and the horses following the death of Max Gluck. Cooke has several trainers handling his horses at Santa Anita, but their only contact with him has been duplicate letters. . . . Party Leader was late for the post parade, having a loose shoe that had to be repaired in the paddock.