ARCADIA, Calif. (Sept. 29, 2011) – Acclamation, a 5-year-old California-bred who had won but 4 of 23 starts prior to a superb four-race sweep this summer, will be two races away from becoming a serious Horse of the Year candidate when facing seven opponents in Sunday’s Grade II, $150,000 Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship at Santa Anita.

Acclamation also was entered in Saturday’s Grade I, $250,000 Goodwood Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Santa Anita’s main track, but with a history of only two winless starts over a dirt surface, he was not expected to start in the Goodwood.

At 1 ¼ miles, Sunday’s Hirsch is the co-feature on a nine-race program that includes the Grade I, $250,000 Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race. It assures the winner a spot in the Juvenile Fillies event during racing’s two-day championships at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 & 5. Unbeaten Weemissfrankie, a 1 ¼-length winner of the Grade I Del Mar Debutante, is the most accomplished among 10 entrants in the Oak Leaf at 1 1/16 miles. First post is at 1 p.m. with the Hirsch going as the fourth race; the Oak Leaf as the eighth.

A son of the prolific sire Unusual Heat bred by co-owner Bud Johnston’s Old English Rancho, Acclamation has burst forth from racing’s second tier while capturing Hollywood Park’s Grade II Jim Murray Handicap by seven lengths; Hollywood Park’s Grade I Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap by 3 ½, and the Grade I Eddie Read at Del Mar by 3 ¼, all on turf. Then came the coup de grace. Over Del Mar’s Polytrack, Acclamation turned back favored Twirling Candy by a head in the Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 28.

“They’ve been asking me all year how he’s improved so much,” said trainer Don Warren, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Wednesday. “I just think he’s matured this year into his full potential. It’s that and figuring out what he likes to do. He likes to be out there in front.”

Indeed, Acclamation led from gate-to-wire in his last three triumphs. Two Grade I victories last year, in both the Murray and the Whittingham, had been accomplished in a like manner.

Should the earner of $1,538,048 (8-2-6 in 27 starts) add the Hirsch winner’s share of $90,000, he likely would be supplemented for a fee of $100,000 to become eligible for the Breeders’ Cup. Acclamation almost certainly would target the Turf rather than the Classic. And should he take the Turf for his sixth straight graded win while defeating Europe’s strong contingent of grass runners, the California-based bay would warrant serious Horse of the Year consideration.

Patrick Valenzuela, who will ride Acclamation on Sunday, gained the mount in the Pacific Classic after Joel Rosario opted for Twirling Candy. “We were looking for a speed type rider, and Patrick has always been one of the best in the world at putting a horse on the lead,” said Warren, “so it was kind of a natural fit.”

The 48-year-old Valenzuela was thrilled. “At the sixteenth pole, Twirling Candy came to me and had every right in the world to run by,” Valenzuela said following the Pacific Classic. “But my horse stuck his neck out and fought the battle. He wouldn’t let him by. I am so blessed and grateful and thankful.”

Acclamation is not expected to encounter any stiff competition on the front end in the Hirsch while carrying high weight of 124 pounds. His most formidable rival, defending Hirsch champion Champ Pegasus, almost stole last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf, but front-running is not his forte. Garrett Gomez will ride Champ Pegasus for the first time on Sunday.

A 5-year-old son of Fusaichi Pegasus owned and bred in Kentucky by Diamond A Racing and Arturo Vargas, the Richard Mandella trainee has won just over $1 million from a 5-4-1 record in 13 starts. He seemed to peak near the end of last year when victories in the Del Mar Handicap and the Hirsch under Rosario paved his way into the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Rosario found himself on the lead in the Turf at Churchill Downs, passing the half mile mark in a dawdling :50. Six furlongs went in 1:15 4/5. Champ Pegasus battled on gamely but was unable to turn back victorious Dangerous Midge, who beat him by 1 ¼ lengths.

After winning Santa Anita’s Grade II San Luis Obispo in February, Champ Pegasus was dispatched to Dubai to compete in the Group I, $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic in March. Rosario went along for the ride, but they were badly beaten while finishing 12th in a field of 14. Off until August, Champ Pegasus prepped for the Hirsch by running fifth in the Grade II Del Mar Mile Handicap on Aug. 27, finishing two lengths behind victorious Caracortado.

Aside from Acclamation, Brazilian-bred Imponente Purse would seem the sharpest runner in the field. After winning Hollywood Park’s Grade III Sunset Handicap on July 17, the 5-year-old gelding came up a neck short with a rail rally in the Grade II Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 28. Chantal Sutherland rides the South American import trained by A. C. Avila for Jessica Coudelaria. Imponente Purse has earned $151,470 of his career bankroll, $212,627, this year. His overall record is 4-3-4 in 20 starts.

The complete field for the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Ashtar, Hector Berrios, 121; Imponente Purse, Chantal Sutherland, 119; Champ Pegasus, Garrett Gomez, 121; Dreamy Kid, Joel Rosario, 121; Dynamic Host, David Flores, 119; Buenos Dias, Brice Blanc, 119; Acclamation, Patrick Valenzuela, 124, and Make Music for Me, Jose Valdivia Jr., 119.

In search of her second consecutive Grade I victory in Sunday’s Oak Leaf, Weemissfrankie will be making her first start on a conventional dirt surface while negotiating two turns for the first time. She closed from well off the pace while recording her first two wins over Del Mar’s Polytrack footing.

Peter Eurton, who trains the New York-bred daughter of Sunriver, expects Weemissfrankie to successfully deal with both of those new propositions. “I love the way she’s moving over the dirt right now,” he said in reference to training on Santa Anita’s main track.

Eurton expects her to be closer to the pace on Sunday than she had been in her pair of sprint efforts. Rafael Bejarano retains the mount on the chestnut filly owned by a partnership that includes MTV star Rob Dyrdek.

A fast-closing second to Weemissfrankie in the Del Mar Debutante, Self Preservation is expected to improve off that troubled effort that left her 2 ¼ lengths behind the winner at odds of 24-1.

Trainer Ben Cecil admitted that he was surprised by the good showing in that he had not been pleased with Self Preservation’s training at Del Mar following her arrival from Ireland in early August. “She’s a different filly since she got up here,” Cecil said from Santa Anita.

A Kentucky-bred daughter of Lion Heart, Self Preservation was bumped at the start of the Del Mar Debutante and raced 10th and last for half of the seven-furlong journey. It was her first start for owner J. Paul Reddam after two races in Ireland including a maiden-breaker by five lengths at Tipperary. Valenzuela, who rode Self Preservation at Del Mar, has the return assignment.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will be represented by unbeaten Candrea, a daughter of Trippi purchased for $340,000 by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. After breaking her maiden by 3 ½ lengths at Hollywood Park on July 7, Candrea took Fairplex Park’s Phil D. Shepherd Stakes by four lengths on Sept. 16. Martin Garcia will be aboard. Baffert also sends out Dreamcaster, seventh in the Del Mar Debutante.

The complete field for the Oak Leaf Stakes, with jockeys in post position order (all entrants carry 122 pounds): Silent Saga, Victor Espinoza; Self Preservation, Valenzuela; Killer Graces, Joseph Talamo; Candrea, Martin Garcia; My Gi Gi, Sutherland; Wild Truffles, Alonso Quinonez; Regal Betty, Rosario; Weemissfrankie, Bejarano; Dreamcaster, Martin Pedroza, and Charm the Maker, Gomez.