Best Pal Can Return to the Top in ‘Big Cap : Horse racing: Gelding, who was overlooked in last year’s horse-of-the-year voting because of an injury, can regain his reputation--and make history--today.


The vote for the 1992 horse of the year was A.P. Indy 237, Best Pal 15. The vote for best older male was Pleasant Tap 154, Best Pal 115.

The tally that rankled Gary Jones, Best Pal’s trainer, the most was the Pleasant Tap vote.

“Pleasant Tap,” Jones scoffed. “We were 10 lengths better than that horse. We would have only beaten him from here to (Mt.) Rushmore.”

Although all three horses began their campaigns in California, A.P. Indy and Pleasant Tap went in different directions and Best Pal never raced them last year. It was difficult giving serious consideration to a horse whose season ended in early May because of a leg injury.

This year, A.P. Indy and Pleasant Tap have been retired for breeding, so Jones’ arguments about their comparative merits are moot. What Best Pal can do, however, is beat the best of what’s left, and that objective begins today when he races 10 opponents in the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap.


Best Pal, a 5-year-old gelding, won the Big ‘Cap last year, and a victory today would make him only the second repeat winner in the 56 runnings of the race. John Henry, another durable gelding, won the 1981 Big ‘Cap as a 6-year-old, and the next year, after narrowly losing a stretch duel with Perrault, he was the winner again because of a stewards’ disqualification.

“I think Best Pal’s one of the best horses to race in America in a long time,” Jones said. “He’s won Grade I stakes as a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. Yet they give him a lot of weight, but no awards. Maybe they think he’s just another California-bred. But now they’re running this race for $1 million, and nobody from the East has come out to go against him.”

In 1990, Best Pal won six of eight starts and earned $1 million, but he finished sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park and the winner of the race, Fly So Free, was voted the divisional champion.

In 1991, Best Pal struggled through near misses in the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby. Jones replaced Ian Jory as trainer, and Best Pal beat older horses in the $1-million Pacific Classic, ending another year with $1 million in earnings.

Last year had all the earmarks of a horse-of-the-year season for Best Pal, who won the San Fernando, the Strub and the Santa Anita Handicap in a 49-day span. In April, he added a victory in the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas.

Jones dodged a bullet when Best Pal’s cracked left rear hoof was repaired only days before the Big ‘Cap. But after the horse’s only defeat at 4, a fourth-place finish in the Pimlico Special, he suffered a shin injury during a workout at Hollywood Park in June and was done for the year.

This year, to get Best Pal ready for an encore in the Big ‘Cap, Jones had to work quickly. A 20-inch rainfall during January didn’t help.

In his only 1993 race, the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 24, Best Pal lost by 2 3/4 lengths to Jovial, then was moved back from second to fifth place by the stewards because of interference on the backstretch.

Kent Desormeaux, Best Pal’s jockey, was handed a five-day suspension for that offense, and although Desormeaux is serving another five days for another incident this week, he will be able to ride in the Big ‘Cap because of California’s designated-race rule.

“We had to rush to get ready for that first race,” Jones said. “And it was obvious that he needed a race. He’s worked good since then. But there’s no way to tell whether he’s ready for a mile and a quarter until he runs it. Last year’s field might have been tougher, but it’s going to be harder to win this year’s race because we didn’t have a second prep race.”

Best Pal has 12 victories, six seconds and one third in 24 races. With $3.8 million in earnings, he could go over $4 million with a first or second today. Alysheba, the 1988 Big ‘Cap winner, heads the money list with $6.6 million. John Henry has $6.5 million. Also ahead of Best Pal, in the $4-million bracket, are Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Unbridled, Spend A Buck and Creme Fraiche. All of those horses have been retired.

Best Pal’s breeders, John and Betty Mabee of San Diego, might have sold this son of Habitony and Ubetshedid, but there was no demand for him.

“He was just another California-bred,” said Gayle Van Leer, who manages the Mabees’ 400-acre farm in Ramona. “He was nothing that stood out. He probably would have brought something like $5,000 as a yearling. Maybe $10,000, tops.”

Best Pal, the 8-5 morning-line favorite, will carry 124 pounds today, four more than Bertrando, who is second in the weights. Jones’ main complaint about the weights is that Jovial, the horse he thinks he must beat, has a seven-pound edge.

Mickey Walls, North America’s champion apprentice when he rode in Canada in 1991, will be trying to win for the third consecutive time aboard Jovial. Other jockeys in the Big ‘Cap have combined to win 47 races worth $1 million or more, while Walls has won none of the rich ones.

“I’m not nervous,” Walls said. “If he runs good, he runs good. I’m looking forward to it.”

Horse Racing Notes

Jovial would be the third supplementary and the second British-bred to win the Santa Anita Handicap. The other supplementary winners have been Prince Dantan in 1974 and Martial Law in 1989. Eighteen supplementaries have failed to win. Jovial’s owners paid a $25,000 penalty to make him eligible for the race. The only English horse to win the Big ‘Cap was Greinton in 1986.

Best Pal, who trains at Hollywood Park, arrived at Santa Anita last Tuesday and breezed two furlongs Wednesday. . . . “Everyone knows that Best Pal likes to be outside of horses,” said Kent Desormeaux, referring to his horse’s No. 1 post. “If (the other horses) are 18-wide once we get going, you can bet I’ll be 19-wide.”

Tel Quel, one of two starters who will be saddled by Charlie Whittingham, is a European import who is winless in four American starts. He finished last in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 14, bleeding from the lungs despite racing on Lasix. Whittingham’s other starter, Sir Beaufort, has been first or second in his last six starts, including a second behind Marquetry in the San Antonio.

Fit To Lead, who might have run in Sunday’s Santa Anita Oaks if she hadn’t switched trainers, was sold at auction Wednesday for $400,000. Jim Colbert, the senior pro golfer who bought the filly, has hired trainer Dick Mandella. Fit To Lead’s former trainer, Caesar Dominguez, saddled her before her victory in the Santa Ynez Breeders’ Cup Stakes on Jan. 31. Fit To Lead is headed for Keeneland, where she will run in the Beaumont Stakes on April 4.

Sunday’s $200,000 Oaks will pit Eliza, last year’s champion 2-year-old filly, against Likeable Style, a Mandella trainee who is undefeated in three starts. This is the field, in post-position order: Likeable Style, Passing Vice, Fondly Remembered, Madame L’Enjoleur, Dance For Vanny, Incindress, Eliza, Stalcreek and Swazi’s Moment. . . . Because of heat in his left foreleg, Denmars Dream will skip Sunday’s Sausalito Stakes for 3-year-olds at Golden Gate Fields on Sunday.

No Curtain Calls

These are the 10 winners of the Santa Anita Handicap who tried to win the race twice and failed:

YEAR LATER HORSE WON ATTEMPTS Azucar 1935 4th--1936 Top Row 1936 15th--1938 Kayak II 1939 2nd--1940 Moonrush 1951 10th--1952 Rejected 1954 7th--1955 5th--1956 Prove It 1961 9th--1962 Physician 1962 8th--1963 Hill Rise 1965 5th--1966 Nodouble 1969 8th--1970 Crystal Water 1977 4th--1978