The only thing trainer Rick Mettee knew for sure was that Brown Bess did not win. Brown Bess, the 8-year-old mare who was last year's female grass champion, was in the middle of Sunday's three-horse photo finish, a Santa Anita thriller that also brought Mettee's Annoconnor and Royal Touch to the wire at the same time in the $162,000 Santa Ana Handicap.
"I thought Royal Touch might get there on the inside, I really did," said Mettee, who was happy to be wrong when the stewards posted Annoconnor's number. The 6-year-old mare, probably running the last race of her career, was in the center of the track, so far away from Royal Touch that it was difficult to form a perspective from the box seats. The official photo showed that Annoconnor had beaten Royal Touch by a head, and Brown Bess, the 13-10 favorite, missed second place by a nose.
"You couldn't have written a script any better than this," Mettee said. Annoconnor won her 12th race in 29 starts and earned $94,500, pushing the daughter of Nureyev and My Nord over the $1-million mark. Owned by Morton Fink and Roy Gottlieb of Chicago, she's scheduled to be flown on April 1 to Kentucky to be bred to Mr. Prospector.
Santa Anita runs the Santa Barbara Handicap on March 31. "That race is a longshot, especially now that she's gone over the million mark," Mettee said.
Mettee used to be John Gosden's assistant trainer, and he took over the handling of Annoconnor full-time last year after Gosden left California for his native England. The Santa Ana, run on a cool day before a crowd of 34,752, was Mettee's first major victory.
"I won't be able to replace Annoconnor, but she's turned out to be a big break for me," Mettee, 31, said before the race. "She's been awfully versatile, being able to win on both the dirt and the grass. She's won going short on the dirt and she's won at 1 1/8 miles on the grass. She's won on the lead and coming from off of it, and not many horses in California can do that, especially fillies and mares."
Ridden by Corey Black, Annoconnor ran 1 1/8 miles on Sunday in 1:47 4/5, more than a second off the stakes record, and paid $11 to win as the third choice behind Brown Bess and Royal Touch in the seven-horse field. Annoconnor carried 119 pounds, four less than Brown Bess and two less than Royal Touch.
Brown Bess was beaten by fillies and mares on grass for the first time in eight races, dating to September of 1988, but she was still game, running for the first time since a record-setting victory in the Yellow Ribbon four months ago.
"It's hard to get a horse on top after that kind of a layoff," trainer Chuck Jenda said. "Hopefully she'll improve off this race."
Sherarda led all the way until the quarter pole, when the French filly stumbled, forcing Royal Touch and her jockey, Russell Baze, to pause. Brown Bess, ridden by Cowboy Jack Kaenel, took over the lead with an eighth of a mile to run.
Annoconnor inched ahead in mid-stretch, but Brown Bess stuck her nose back in front. All this time, Baze had gotten Royal Touch back in gear and they were flying on the rail.
"In my heart, I feel that this is the biggest race I've ever won," Black said. "This mare kind of picked me up at a point in my career when things were not going so well. Neither of us were well-known when we got together, and she was always there to carry me."
Annoconnor was fourth early, and Black took her to the outside to avoid running up other horses' heels.
"I was never far off the lead," Black said. "In the last 30 yards, I really got into my horse. She wanted it bad."
Black, 21, scored his fifth stakes victory of the meeting, the most he's ever had at Santa Anita.
"If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any at all," Baze said. "I had to check when the other horse stumbled. What a nice filly this is, to come back the way she did."
Fieldy, who was second to Maria Jesse in last year's Santa Ana, finished fourth, beaten by about a length after making a late run under Kent Desormeaux.
That was the worst finish of the day for Desormeaux, who had three victories, three seconds and one third from eight mounts. The Maryland-based Desormeaux rode a record 597 winners last year in winning the Eclipse Award, and since his first day at Santa Anita on Feb. 14, he's notched 18 winners.
Horse Racing Notes
Thirty Slews, a 3-year-old gelding making his first start, easily won the sixth race, running six furlongs in an excellent 1:09 4/5. Thirty Slews, who was sired by Slewpy, is trained by Bob Baffert, who started with quarter horses, and he's owned by Baffert, Dennis Boer and James Streelman, who raced Zure Hope Again, the quarter horse who won the Los Alamitos Derby. "We named him Thirty Slews because I paid $30,000 for him (as a yearling) at Keeneland," Baffert said. "It was the first time I ever went there, and this was the only horse I liked. But it's a good thing they give you credit. They give you 30 days to pay. We hadn't started this horse before because he was real big as a 2-year-old and needed some time."
Gary Stevens finished second to Thirty Slews aboard Homestead, the colt who kept him from going to Aqueduct to ride Sunny Blossom in Sunday's Toboggan Handicap. Sunny Blossom, under Eddie Maple, won by 5 3/4 lengths, paying $9 and beating crack New York sprinters Once Wild and Mr. Nickerson. Sunny Blossom set the Santa Anita record for six furlongs with a 1:07 1/5 clocking in the Palos Verdes Handicap on Dec. 30. Trainer Eddie Gregson said that the 5-year-old gelding would be brought back to California.
Silver Ending, who'll be favored Sunday in the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita, might skip the Sanita Derby on April 7. Trainer Ron McAnally is concerned about the way the Santa Anita track has been favoring front-runners and is considering the Jim Beam at Turfway Park on March 31. . . . Jockey David Flores has been handed a five-day suspension by the stewards, starting Thursday, after a horse he rode, Ying n' Yang, caused interference in Saturday's fifth race.