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SANTA ANITA : Bargain Basement Yearling Is a Wicked Favorite in Big ‘Cap

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before David Bernstein went to the January sale at Keeneland in 1990, Philip Hersh, a horse owner who was one of the trainer’s longtime clients, made a request.

“Mr. Hersh said that if I could pick up a yearling for about $10,000, go ahead and get him,” Bernstein remembered Thursday morning.

Bernstein didn’t spend a penny more or a penny less and, four years later, the $10,000 was the best money Hersh ever spent.

The Wicked North was the yearling that caught Bernstein’s eye and now the 5-year-old son of Far North is the favorite in today’s $1-million Santa Anita Handicap. Already, the Kentucky-bred has earned $434,500 from six victories, four seconds and a third in 13 starts.

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In a race lacking speed, The Wicked North will try to duplicate his San Antonio Handicap victory three weeks ago and begin what Bernstein hopes will be a memorable weekend.

On Sunday, Bernstein will saddle Stalcreek in the $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap, the biggest race of the meeting for older fillies and mares. An upset winner over Hollywood Wildcat in the La Canada Stakes last month, Stalcreek will be trying to beat another Eclipse Award winner, Paseana, in the 1 1/8-mile stake.

A fan of the sport for most of his 54 years, Bernstein has been training since he left a catering business 27 years ago. Never blessed with a large stable, he has a chance to fulfill a dream this afternoon with his first Big ‘Cap starter.

“I’m so excited just to be in the race,” he said. “It’s basically a dream come true for a trainer to run (a horse) in the Santa Anita Handicap. This is an unbelievable thrill for me. I don’t sleep as well at night thinking about it.”

Actually, the trainers of the six other horses in the Big ‘Cap are the ones who should be having problems sleeping because the Grade I event appears to be The Wicked North’s for the taking.

In the absence of Slew Of Damascus, the pace will be moderate at best--much as it was in the San Antonio--and on paper it looks as though The Wicked North should lead all the way.

The only concern may be the distance, since The Wicked North has never gone as far as 1 1/4 miles.

“You never know if they can go a mile and a quarter until they do it, but we’re optimistic,” Bernstein said. “He’s doing as well as he was before the San Antonio, and we’re excited and optimistic.”

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Adding to the optimism of Bernstein and Hersh is the presence of Kent Desormeaux. Santa Anita’s leading jockey has four victories and a second in five rides on The Wicked North.

Desormeaux was a fan, however, before any of those victories, even before the horse’s maiden victory at the 1992 Del Mar meeting.

“Kent had worked him a couple of times and he said he was something special,” Bernstein said. “He went on a TV show the morning of the race and said the horse would win.”

A client of Bernstein’s since 1983 after being recommended to the trainer by the late Harry Silbert, Bill Shoemaker’s longtime agent, Hersh, 75, has been in the business more than 20 years and this is the best horse he has had. Although approached with several offers to buy The Wicked North during the last couple of years, he has no desire to sell.

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“If I sold this horse, I’d get a divorce,” Hersh said. “My wife (Sophie) never wanted to be involved, but with this horse she does. We have a trust and she wanted her name put on the trust.

“This horse has been a big thrill for me and my family. (Being in the Santa Anita Handicap) is something you dream about. In my (mind) this race is more prestigious than the Breeders’ Cup.”

He also would relish a victory for Bernstein’s sake. “He’s honest, that’s the No. 1 thing about David,” Hersh said. “One of the principal factors in horse racing is that you have to talk to the owners. A lot of trainers don’t talk to owners because they feel like they’re on a plateau of their own, above (the owners). Dave’s not like that. He’s somebody you can talk to.”

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Stalcreek will probably be the second choice behind Paseana in the Santa Margarita, one of two features Sunday at Santa Anita. The $150,000 San Rafael Stakes, which attracted six 3-year-olds, is the other.

A 4-year-old daughter of Stalwart, Stalcreek has won five of 11 starts and has been worse than third only twice. She has earned $336,800 for owners Gaylord Ailshie and the estate of Joe Shields.

“She’s a hard-trying filly and she continues to improve,” Bernstein said. “She just doesn’t get the respect of some of the others. She’s not as flashy as The Wicked North but she tries every time.”

Santa Anita Handicap

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A look at the field entered for today’s $1-million Santa Anita Handicap.

Post, Horse Jockey Wt. Odds 1. Hill Pass McCarron 115 8 2. Bien Bien Pincay 120 4 3. The Wicked North Desormeaux 118 2 4. Nonproductiveasset Nakatani 116 6 5. Myrakalu (Fr) Solis 113 30 6. Stuka Antley 115 8 7. Region Delahoussaye 116 7-2 8. Kissin Kris Bailey 119 8


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