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SANTA ANITA : It’s Not Del Mar, but Dennis Wins the San Pasqual Anyway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although Del Mar Dennis was coasting along on an easy lead in Sunday’s San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita and his trainer was confident, co-owner Trudy McCaffery wasn’t so sure.

“He’s so gutsy,” McCaffery said of the 5-year-old gelding, “but I was worried about him winning on the lead.”

The way the second half of 1994 treated McCaffery and her partner, John Toffan, they had every reason to feel insecure. The McCaffery-Toffan combination raced horses that earned $1.9 million in 1993, placing them 11th in the country, but when Bien Bien, their big breadwinner, was injured and then retired last year, the stable’s fortunes soured.

Now perhaps Del Mar Dennis is ready to lead the two transplanted Canadians back to prominence. He held on for a two-length victory in the $206,100 San Pasqual, with Slew of Damascus finishing second, Tossofthecoin third and Best Pal, the 9-10 favorite, settling for fourth place, more than 3 1/4 lengths behind the winner.

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“Except for Del Mar Dennis,” Toffan said, “I don’t think we’ve had a stakes win since Bien Bien.”

Bien Bien, a grass specialist who earned $2.3 million, won his last race in April, in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita.

Del Mar Dennis, a January yearling who was bought at auction for $50,000, won two stakes early last year, then lost three in a row before capturing the Ack Ack Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 1. The San Pasqual was his seventh victory in 12 starts during a career that has been limited by a sore ankle and cracked hoofs on both forelegs.

“We patch the cracks and then keep watching that they don’t happen again,” said Paco Gonzalez, who trains for McCaffery and Toffan.

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Alex Solis, who has ridden Del Mar Dennis in his last three races, was told by Gonzalez that their horse could go to the front if Slew of Damascus didn’t.

“My horse broke on top, but I didn’t want to send him,” said Gary Stevens, who rode Slew of Damascus, a winner over Del Mar Dennis in last year’s Hollywood Gold Cup. “I just left the reins loose, and let him dictate the pace he wanted. He was very relaxed behind Del Mar Dennis. I made a couple of different moves at him going into the far turn. Alex had a lot of horse under him. My horse really accelerated at the five-sixteenths pole. But Alex’s horse picked it up right away too.”

On a fast track, Del Mar Dennis carried 118 pounds, four less than Best Pal and two less than Slew of Damascus while running 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 1/5. He paid $13.20 to win, earning $116,100 and sending his purses over the $575,000 mark. Slew of Damascus finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Tossofthecoin, who had a nose on Best Pal.

Gonzalez said that when he saw the fractions of :23 2/5 and :47 1/5, he felt comfortable.

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“I wanted to make my own pace, and that’s what I did,” Solis said. “When I got to the quarter pole, I figured it was time to open up, because we had been going pretty slow. I had a lot of horse for the end.”

Best Pal, the leading active earner, began the day with $5.1 million and added only $15,000 to that total.

“Training him in the mud, the way it’s been the last few weeks, he doesn’t really like it,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “We didn’t have any blistering works in there or anything real strong. We still thought he had enough, but maybe it wasn’t quite enough.”

Sunday’s winner and some of the horses behind him will be considered for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 11, but there were no definite takers after the trainers watched on television as California-bound Holy Bull made a successful comeback at Gulfstream Park.

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“The San Antonio Handicap (Feb. 12) and the Big ‘Cap are both possibilities,” said Craig Roberts, Slew of Damascus’ trainer. “But I don’t know, that gray horse (Holy Bull) looked awful good.”

Horse Racing Notes

The Wicked North, disqualified winner of last year’s Santa Anita Handicap and the champion older horse last year, hasn’t been able to work on the muddy track at Santa Anita and he won’t be ready to run in the San Antonio Handicap, which was to be his prep for the Big ‘Cap. Tabasco Cat, winner of last year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes, will miss the Strub Stakes on Feb. 5, which was to be his prep for the Big ‘Cap. Holy Bull’s trainer, Jimmy Croll, has indicated that the Big ‘Cap is on the schedule after his colt runs in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 11.

David Flores rode four winners Sunday, including Finder’s Fortune in the Reb’s Policy Handicap and Pasta Fasola, who was 33-1. . . . Kent Desormeaux had three winners. . . . Alex Solis’ stakes victory was his fourth of the meet, which puts him one behind Chris Antley. . . . Two of Flores’ winners were trained by Bob Baffert. . . . Russell Baze won the first four races and the last race on the card at Golden Gate Fields. . . . Phone Chatter, champion juvenile filly in 1993, will be sidelined for about two months after suffering a leg injury in her stall.

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