Bayakoa apparently is so versatile that she landed one vote last year for best female turf horse even though she hadn't run on grass since 1988.
Bayakoa might not ever see grass again, but she will certainly be allowed to run in slop. On Sunday, she sauntered to a second consecutive victory in the Santa Margarita Handicap.
It didn't matter that this year's stake was run on an off track instead of a fast one, and that the 6-year-old mare carried 127 pounds instead of 118. She has run the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 2/5 both times.
For the second consecutive race, Chris McCarron was in on a pass, having replaced an injured Laffit Pincay for a cakewalk in the Santa Maria Handicap two weeks ago, and continuing to ride her because Pincay's broken collarbone hasn't completely healed.
"I used to say that Glorious Song (the winner of the Santa Margarita in 1980) and Lady's Secret (the Santa Margarita winner and horse of the year in 1986) were the best fillies I ever rode," McCarron said. "But this one might be the best now."
Purchased by Frank and Jan Whitham of Leoti, Kan., for $300,000 after she won three of eight races in Argentina, Bayakoa has now won 13 of 20 starts in the United States, and 10 of her last 11. The only defeat in that time for last year's Eclipse Award-winning mare was a sixth-place finish in the Chula Vista Handicap in September at Del Mar.
Bayakoa carried 127 pounds in the Chula Vista, the same load as Sunday, which had been a concern all week for trainer Ron McAnally. McAnally's option was the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, where she would have to face males, but would get a five-pound weight concession because of a sex allowance.
McAnally said that he really didn't decide to run in the Santa Margarita until Sunday morning. "When it kept raining, I knew she would like this track," McAnally said. "She had never run a mile and a quarter (the Santa Anita Handicap distance), she's never faced colts, and you don't know what the track will be like in two weeks."
The trainers of Kelly, Nikishka and Invited Guest, in a fit of sanity, scratched their horses Sunday, reducing the $294,000 Santa Margarita to a cozy field of four. Gorgeous, carrying two pounds less than Bayakoa, had run a notable second to McAnally's mare in the Breeders' Cup Distaff in November at Gulfstream Park, but in the Santa Margarita trainer Neil Drysdale's 4-year-old filly struggled through the slop while Bayakoa reveled in it.
Gorgeous led for a half-mile, but that was because McCarron was keeping the safety latch on his loaded gun. Once Bayakoa made the lead going down the backstretch, the drama was all over. Bayakoa beat Gorgeous by six lengths, with Luthier's Launch third, another five lengths back. Bayakoa, earning $180,000 to increase her total to $1.7 million, paid $3 to win in a crowd of 28,426.
McAnally is in for another round of questioning regarding the Big 'Cap, which has never been won by a filly or mare.
"The race is a possibility," McAnally said. "I have to talk to Chris, and the way she comes back, the way she eats, will be factors."
Another factor is Ruhlmann, a probable Big 'Cap starter who likes to run out front and would not let Bayakoa go off unchallenged. McAnally, who can't remember ever trying to beat males with a distaffer, feels that such victories are possible only when the filly or mare gets a quick lead.
If Bayakoa does run in the Big 'Cap, Pincay, due back this week, is expected to regain the mount. "I hope this isn't the last time I ride Bayakoa," McCarron said. "But I hope Laffit gets back, too, because he's too much of a guy to be on the ground for too long. It's a lot easier for the rest of us, though, when he's gone."
Bayakoa used to be a problem, going from the paddock to the walking ring to the track, and then relaxing once the bell rang, but maturity and continued work from McAnally seem to have relieved the mare of those anxieties.
Drysdale noticed the difference in her three races ago, in the Breeders' Cup. "I expected her to be on a very swift pace that day," Gorgeous' trainer said. "McAnally and Pincay did a good job getting her to relax, and we weren't anticipating that. We might have changed our game plan if we had."
Any game plan Drysdale had Sunday was eliminated by the slippery track conditions, although Gorgeous did show one win in the mud last year, at Turfway Park.
"She wasn't handling the track," said Eddie Delahoussaye after riding Gorgeous Sunday. "I'm not taking anything away from the winner, but my filly was floundering. She has a long stride, and it was too slick for her. I wish we could have run on a dry track."
When Gorgeous, who broke from the second stall with Bayakoa on the far outside, took the lead going around the clubhouse turn, no one was kidding anybody.
"Bayakoa let us have the lead," Drysdale said. "My horse was doing a lot of slipping and sliding."
On the far turn, after Bayakoa had taken about a three-length lead, Gorgeous made a bit of an attempt to come back.
McCarron wasn't worried. "I hadn't asked my mare to run yet," he said. "When I let her run, I knew we were in good shape. We won handily. This mare handles an off track better than any horse I've ridden. It was pretty deep, and she made it feel fast. Other horses I rode today were all slipping and sliding."
Besides Bayakoa's athletic ability, McCarron said her small feet are an asset when the going is muddy. That may be true, but the opposition knows it's been stepped on, just the same.
Horse Racing Notes
If Bayakoa doesn't run in the Santa Anita Handicap, she probably will be shipped out of town, with the Oaklawn and Apple Blossom Handicaps at Oaklawn Park in April being two possibilities, along with the Pimlico Special in May. Trainer Ron McAnally knows he has a horse-of-the-year contender, and beating males in the Big 'Cap, the Oaklawn or the Pimlico would catch voters' attention early. . . . Bayakoa won the Apple Blossom last year.
Chris McCarron leads the Santa Anita meet with eight stakes victories.
Kent Desormeaux won twice with Flying Reb, by 8 1/2 lengths in a 3-year-old allowance, and Light the World, who hadn't won in 20 lifetime starts. Favored Warcraft finished far back in the Flying Reb race. "Ack Ack (Warcraft's sire) liked the mud, but this horse doesn't," trainer Charlie Whittingham said. "You can never tell. A lot of Cougar's offspring liked the mud, but he didn't like it."
Whittingham saddles Frankly Perfect, who won last year in soft going at Santa Anita, along with River Warden and Live the Dream, in today's 14-horse San Luis Obispo Handicap. Jose Santos is in town from Florida to ride Drum Taps, who will make his California debut. . . . Oraibi, who suffered a cracked cannon bone in his lower right foreleg during a workout, might be headed for a stud career. . . . Mister Frisky, one of California's leading 3-year-olds, will run in the one-mile San Rafael on March 3.