California Flag bounces back to win record third Morvich
Hi Card Ranch's homebred California Flag had fallen off his 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint-winning form some time ago, but trainer Brian Koriner was hopeful that the venerable seven-year-old gelding was on the verge of a strong performance in Monday's Grade 3, $100,000 Morvich Stakes at Santa Anita. In fact, if California Flag didn't turn the corner here, Koriner had said that retirement beckoned. But California Flag swiftly silenced that sort of talk by driving to an unprecedented third Morvich victory, and wasn't far off his own course record in the process.
A true horse for this unique, about 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course, California Flag set the record of 1:11.10 when winning his first Morvich in 2008. He successfully defended his title in 2009, and went on to wire the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at the same course. Since then, California Flag had lost six of seven, and his last four in a row. Koriner indicated that the veteran had some issues to take care of along the way. The trainer's patient horsemanship brought him back to health, and made him ready for a return to his pet course.
As Excessive Passion sped through fractions of :21.41 and :43.42, California Flag was steadily advancing in second for Pat Valenzuela. He accosted the front runner in the stretch, and although Excessive Passion tried to fend him off, the old gray had too much momentum.
Just behind them, Leroy's Dynameaux was full of run with nowhere to go. The path to the outside was blocked by Ain't No Other, who stubbornly held his position in third. Leroy's Dynameaux had to check off heels in a rough trip and wound up a luckless fourth.
California Flag, ultimately subduing Excessive Passion by a half-length, stopped the teletimer in 1:11.91 on the firm turf. The 6-1 third choice paid $15.40, $9.80 and $6.
"He ran a great race," Valenzuela said. "He relaxed, sat behind the leaders and moved up around the turn. I had horse coming across the dirt and he just kicked on and fought it out hard. He's a fighter. He ran a good race down at Del Mar on the synthetic (when fifth in the September 7 Pirate's Bounty), but he does like the turf a lot better."
"He's a nice old horse," Koriner said. "It's just nice to see him back and people can quit criticizing (for running him at age seven). He (Valenzuela) rode him perfect. He sat right outside that horse (Excessive Passion), he got him to relax and then he spurted away. He grinds it out. At the end, nobody was making any impact. They were just going even to the wire."
Excessive Passion had a half-length to spare over Ain't No Other, and Leroy's Dynameaux was another neck back in fourth. Camp Victory, the 4-5 favorite, was a non-threatening fifth, followed by Posse Power, Al Instante and El Gato Malo.
California Flag's seventh career stakes victory advanced his record to 24-10-0-2, $1,228,825. Aside from his record three Morvich trophies and his Breeders' Cup laurel, he captured the Grade 3 Hollywood Turf Express in 2008 and two editions of the Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar (2009-10). California Flag finished a creditable fifth to then-world champion sprinter Sacred Kingdom in the 2009 Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint, and next time out, was third in the 2010 Group 3 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai.
After his repeat win in the Green Flash in his comeback, he lost his way last fall, trailing in the Grade 3 Woodford at Keeneland and reporting home eighth as the defending champion in the Turf Sprint. California Flag was not seen again until this summer, when he tired badly in the July 3 Robert K. Kerlan Memorial at Hollywood Park, but took an incremental step forward in the Pirate's Bounty.
Might California Flag make his fourth straight appearance in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint?
"I don't know," Koriner said. "We'll talk about it. We didn't know what to expect. We'll see what happens."
The California-bred gelding is a full brother to multiple Grade 3 winner Cambiocorsa, another top performer over Santa Anita's downhill turf. Both were sired by Avenue of Flags and produced by the Afleet mare Ultrafle.
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