DOMINANT SHAM WIN PUTS ASMUSSEN’S TAPIZAR SQUARELY IN DERBY PICTURE; SAN FERNANDO GOES TO INDIAN FIREWATER IN CLOSE PHOTO; CALIFORNIA NECTAR TAKES SANTA YNEZ

ARCADIA, Calif. (Jan. 15, 2011) – Tapizar, making his first start at Santa Anita for two-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Steve Asmussen, took a firm first step on the Triple Crown trail Saturday while dominating the Grade III, $100,000 Sham Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.

Bet down to 11-10 favoritism on the strength of a 10 ½-length maiden victory at Churchill Downs in his fourth career start, Tapizar took command soon after the start of Santa Anita’s first important prep for Derby hopefuls. He crossed the wire 4 ¼ lengths ahead of the field’s only previous stakes winner, Clubhouse Ride.

With Garrett Gomez aboard, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred son of Tapit ran the distance in a sprightly 1:40.38. Clubhouse Ride, ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, attempted to make a race of it at the quarter pole, but was quickly discouraged. The runner-up finished five lengths ahead of third-place Anthony’s Cross in the field of five.

Saturday’s 59th running of the Grade II, $150,000 San Fernando Stakes for 4-year-olds had the look of a scramble following the declaration of 2010 Santa Anita Derby champion Sidney’s Candy, and was it ever. A whisker separated trainer Bob Baffert’s two entrants with Indian Firewater nosing out Tweebster at the wire.

The Grade II, $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs went to front-running California Nectar under Valenzuela’s energetic ride.

After dismounting in the Sham winner’s circle from his first trip aboard Tapizar, Gomez said, “He was a little bit fresher than I had anticipated him to be. He went ahead and settled down as soon as I let him make the lead. He put his ears up and kind of cruised around there. I felt like I was loaded.

“When I started to turn for home, the gate was parked on the outside and there was a lot of stuff going on. When I asked him to pick it up, I couldn’t quite get his focus going. But nothing ever got close enough to make him pay attention either. Hopefully, he has many more gears. He traveled beautiful, and he’s a beautiful mover. He was a pleasure to be on today.” The winners graded purse jackpot of $60,000 easily exceeded Tapizar’s previous earnings of $45,632 in four starts. He paid $4.20, $2.80 and $2.10. Clubhouse Ride returned $3.40 and $2.20. The show payoff on Anthony’s Cross, with Joel Rosario in the saddle, was $2.60.

Asmussen said he planned to keep Tapizar at Santa Anita with the ultimate local goal being the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 9. “With the races that he ran at the end of Churchill,” he said, “I thought he was ideal for the (3-year-old) series that’s here.” The ninth trainer in history to win over 5,000 races, Asmussen oversees a far-flung operation, but this season marks his first concerted endeavor at Santa Anita.

The swift final time was irrelevant to Asmussen. “I think the racetrack’s just yielding extremely fast times,” he said. “His work the other morning (47 1/5 for four furlongs on Jan. 13) indicated how sharp he was right now. We want him to be handy.

“I think now keeping him healthy, and if he can go far enough and keep improving with the distances are the questions we have. . .The horse gives us a lot of confidence in that he can do more. He’s talented, but there’s a lot of kid to him, a lot of playfulness in him.”

The San Fernando went to the front-runner with Mike Smith piloting Indian Firewater, at 5-1 the longer price of the Baffert pair. They led every step of mile-and-one-eighth journey run in 1:41.53. But hard-charging Tweebster, with Bejarano aboard at 5-2, was so close at the wire the photo finish camera could barely separate the two.

Ridden by Bejarano in the Dec. 26 Sir Beaufort Stakes at one mile, Indian Firewater ran second to Sidney’s Candy, but he still was 7 ¼ lengths in arrears. Leading rider Bejarano also had handled Tweebster in his last start, a 3 ¾-length victory in an optional claimer at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18.

With Bejarano going to Tweebster in the San Fernando, Hall of Famer Smith was the beneficiary of a track playing kindly to speed. “Going into this race, we thought we’d let him run away from there and if we made the lead, fine,” said Smith. “When I came out to the paddock, they told me Bob (Baffert) had called an audible, and there was a change in strategy – ‘Put him on the lead.’

“Down the backside, he was running easily and he was within himself and breathing really good. I wasn’t sure if we won it because the other horse (Tweebster) was out so wide.”

“That was as close to a dead-heat as you could get,” said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, who was deputizing for a vacationing Baffert, who had celebrated his 58th birthday on Thursday.

Do It All, ridden by Valenzuela, finished 1 ¼ lengths behind the first two with 17-10 favorite Thiskyhasnolimit another 2 ¾ lengths back in fourth place in the field of eight.

Gaining his third win in 14 starts for the partnership of Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman, Indian Firewater paid $13. The payday for the son of Indian Charlie was $90,000 to elevate his career earnings to $257,120.

After futilely chasing Tapizar in the Sham, Valenzuela promptly sent California Nectar to the lead in the 60th running of the Santa Ynez. The California-bred daughter of Stormy Atlantic gamely resisted the desperate rush from last by 6-5 favorite Zazu to prevail by a neck in the field of seven.

Second choice at odds of 3-1, Suarez Racing’s homebred filly raced the seven furlongs in 1:21.34 to record her second successive stakes victory of the meet at the distance after having captured the $100,000 California Breeders’ Championship on Dec. 27.

Zazu, with Rosario aloft, closed furiously on the outside to just fall short while finishing 3 ¼ lengths ahead of third-place Plum Pretty and Bejarano. The winner paid $8.

“She broke really well,” said Valenzuela, “and down the backside, I felt like Superman because she felt like Super Girl – she was flying. When that filly (Zazu) came to her, my filly picked her head up and tried even harder. I don’t think she was ever going to get by us.”

Leandro Mora, assistant to trainer Doug O’Neill, made reference to Valenzuela’s enthusiasm in the paddock. “He was very motivated,” said Mora. “He says, ‘Looks like we can take it again.’ I said, ‘Well, just try to break well because we have the No. 1 post so you don’t get stuck.’”

Mora said he and O’Neill had no definitive plans for California Nectar’s next race, but likely will attempt to stretch her out. She earned $90,000 on Saturday to bring her career total to $213,800 from a record of 3-3-0 in seven starts.

Blind Luck, expected to be named champion 3-year-old filly of 2010 at Monday night’s Eclipse Awards banquet, makes her 2011 racing debut Sunday in Santa Anita’s Grade II, $150,000 El Encino Stakes. First post for the nine-race program is at 12:30 p.m.

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