A handsome chestnut son of Triple Crown champion Secretariat won the $185,600 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita Sunday, but put any comparisons with his illustrious sire on hold. There were nine tired horses at the end of the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, which only added to the suspicion that the best 3-year-olds in the country reside outside California.
Wayne Lukas, who trains San Felipe-winner Image of Greatness and two other Kentucky Derby candidates, Tank's Prospect and Huddle Up, wouldn't say unkind things about this year's 3-year-olds, but Bill Shoemaker was hardly impressed with Sunday's field.
Shoemaker, riding in the San Felipe because Eddie Delahoussaye was shaken up on the training track Sunday morning, finished third aboard Nostalgia's Star, one-length behind of the winner. Skywalker, who was made the favorite by a crowd 70,184, missed by a nose at the wire.
"All these horses were staggering the last eighth of a mile," Shoemaker said. "They must have been running that last part awful slow."
Image of Greatness, bred and owned by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, ran the San Felipe in 1:43 1/5. Not only was the time two seconds off the stakes record, but it also wasn't close to the 1:41 4/5 that a 4-year-old, Champion Pilot, posted in winning an allowance race earlier on the program.
The San Felipe was supposed to be the race that answered some questions about the California 3-year-olds. But instead it only served to ask a few more, the most nagging of which concerns Skywalker, a horse who seems to be feeding off of misguided popularity.
In two of four previous starts, Skywalker seemed to have excuses, but at 2-to-1 in the San Felipe he was clear all the way around, almost caught Image of Greatness in mid-stretch and then just couldn't get there.
"Two jumps past the wire, we were in front," said Pat Day, who rode Skywalker. "But I was riding so hard and had my head down at the wire, so I couldn't tell who won."
Skywalker now has beaten maidens and won an allowance race in five starts, but his trainer, Michael Whittingham, is not discouraged.
"I think we'll have a little advantage if we go farther," Whittingham said. "The other horse ran a big race. We just didn't get that one jump at the wire."
This was Image of Greatness' second win in as many starts under Lukas, who replaced John Fulton as trainer of the colt when Steinbrenner, as he's done with many a baseball manager, decided to make a change on Feb. 1.
The first time Lukas saddled Image of Greatness, for allowance company on Feb. 17, the colt was ridden by Laffit Pincay and won by 2 1/2 lengths.
"We didn't find out much about him in that race," Lukas said, "because he led all the way. What we wanted to see today was whether he could carry his speed and relax, and he passed both of those tests.
"He was physically fit when I got him, John had done a good job and he had a good base. What I'm trying to do is get inside the horse's head, to get him to think like I do."
Winning $106,350, Image of Greatness went off as the second choice and paid $8.60, $4.80 and $3.80. Skywalker paid $4.40 and $3.60, and Nostalgia's Star's show price was $5.40.
Before the race, Pincay doubted that Image of Greatness could handle 1 1/16 miles. The horse he preferred was Floating Reserve. With Pincay, Floating Reserve had won the Santa Catalina Stakes last month, but Lukas made a deal with the jockey to ride Image of Greatness Sunday and Tank's Prospect in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6. Then Bob Hibbert, Floating Reserve's owner, called Eddie Maple in Florida and offered him the mount on his colt.
Floating Reserve trailed early and finished fifth.
"The horses out here have been inconsistent," said Maple, who's familiar with Chief's Crown, Proud Truth, Rhoman Rule and the other standouts in Florida. "The public doesn't know who to bet on in these California races."
Lukas wouldn't say whether he'd run both Image of Greatness and Tank's Prospect in the Santa Anita Derby, but indications are that he'll split them until the Kentucky Derby May 4.
"There are a lot of stakes races to choose from if you've got more than one horse," Lukas said. "In one day in April, there are four or five stakes for 3-year-olds. I made a lot of money for those fillies--Life's Magic, Althea and Lucky Lucky Lucky--running them apart last year."
Although he's yet to run a race this year, Huddle Up is getting a big buildup from Lukas. "He'll make you get up off your chairs when he runs," the trainer said.
Day, happy that Skywalker ran an untroubled race, would have been more pleased if the horse had been better in the post parade.
"He was warm before the race," Day said. "Maybe you could blame that on the fact that he hadn't been out in six weeks. Also, there was an electricity in the air, with the big crowd and all. Maybe the horse sensed that."
Like Maple, Day has Kentucky Derby hopes elsewhere. At Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, he's been riding an undefeated colt named Clever Allemont.