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A Healthy Skywalker Finds His Way Back to the Winner’s Circle

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

If experience were all it takes to win a horse race, Bill Shoemaker surely would have won Sunday’s Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park aboard Virginia Privateer.

Obviously, though, it takes something more because Shoemaker, a two-time winner of the race, brought his horse home last in a field of eight.

And if luck were all it takes to win a horse race, certainly Chris McCarron should have won aboard Sabona. On Sunday, luck seemed to be with McCarron, who won five of the first six races in which he rode and finished third in the other.

Obviously, though, it takes more than luck, too, because, try as McCarron might, Sabona could manage no better than second.

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No, whatever combination of tangible and intangible factors it is that goes into making a winner, only Skywalker and Laffit Pincay had it in the $150,000-added feature.

Completing a remarkable comeback from injury, last year’s Santa Anita Derby winner turned a powerful stretch run into a 2 1/2-length victory in front of a crowd of 29,240. Sabona was second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of Patrick Valenzuela aboard favorite Al Mamoon.

Sent off as the 3-to-1 second choice, Skywalker covered the mile on the turf course in 1:34 4/5. He paid $8.60, $4.60 and $2.40. Sabona paid $5.80 and $2.40, while Al Mamoon paid $2.10 to show.

“Today he showed what a good horse he is,” said trainer Michael Whittingham, who has helped the 4-year-old brown colt back from a series of setbacks.

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After wining the Santa Anita Derby last year, Skywalker suffered a stress fracture in his knee while finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Then, in November, he popped a splint and that further delayed his return.

Finally, on April 6 at Santa Anita, Skywalker ran in an allowance race, but did not impress in finishing third, tiring at the end. Even Pincay, in fact, wondered before Sunday’s race whether the colt was prepared.

“I thought he needed another race to really beat these horses,” the jockey said, “but he had a good work and he was ready.

“He felt very good today. He was sharp. In fact, he broke so fast the ground broke under him and he kind of stumbled a little bit.’

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It was not enough to cause any problem, though, and Skywalker set about stalking the field through the early going, Pincay holding him just off the pace in fifth place.

Al Mamoon and Sabona appeared to be making it their race early on, but Pincay brought Skywalker up on the outside to challenge the leaders, finally taking the lead with about a furlong to go.

“Before I took the lead, I hit him,” Pincay said, “because I wanted to make sure he would concentrate on the whip. I was afraid he’d pull himself up again (as he had in his last outing), but he didn’t. He just kept on going.”

The victory was worth $96,600 plus a $27,000 Breeders’ Cup premium award for Skywalker’s owner, the Oak Cliff Stable. Thomas Tatham, the stable’s managing partner, said the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1 at Santa Anita is very much in mind.

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“We really haven’t thought much beyond this race,” he said. “We’d kind of like to try him on the grass sometime. Our main aim is the Breeders’ Cup.”

McCarron had his hands full with Sabona before and during the race.

“He was really rank,” McCarron said. “He was pulling me out of the saddle on the backstretch. I had to let him pull by Shoemaker and then Olivares (Frank Olivares, riding Innamorato). Then, when he needed the kick turning for home, he didn’t have it.”

Horse Racing Notes Also on Sunday’s program was the Terlingua, a $40,000-addded event for 3-year-old fillies. Comparability, producing a fine stretch run along the rail, gave Chris McCarron his third winner of the day, covering the six furlongs on the main track in 1:10 3/5. Chick or Two, with Laffit Pincay up, took second, while Fashion Dynasty, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, hung on for third . . . McCarron failed to finish out of the money Sunday, ending up with five victories, two thirds and a second in eight starts.

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