One of the more intriguing questions being asked by race fans this weekend concerns Gate Dancer, the hooded horse who will make his grass debut today in the $200,000-added San Luis Rey Stakes at 1 1/2 miles at Santa Anita.
"What's he going to do when he crosses the dirt for the first time?" assistant trainer Kenny Danna asked. "Don't take your eyes off him."
Gate Dancer already ranks as a full-fledged Grade I enigma. He has won more than $1.3 million in purses and finished in the money in 16 of 18 starts, yet he has never won a stakes in California.
The 4-year-old colt has a reputation for erratic behavior in races. To keep his mind on business, he wears a hood and earmuffs that make him look like a cross between a rabbit, an ice hockey goalie and something from the pro wrestling circuit.
The colt gave trainer Jack Van Berg his first Triple Crown victory in the Preakness last year, but has caused him to pull out the last remaining hairs from his head with his penchant for finding trouble in a race. He was disqualified for interference in both the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic last year.
After reeling off third-place finishes in the Grade I San Fernando and Charles H. Strub stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap with Gate Dancer on the dirt this winter, Van Berg decided it was time to test the turf.
Some horses easily make the transition. Some don't.
"His sire, Sovereign Dancer, has produced a couple of winners on grass," Danna said. "Gate Dancer has been working well on it. He wasn't getting hold of the main track here. The only other time he's gone 1 1/2 miles was in the Belmont (where he finished sixth by 10 1/2 lengths). But this is grass, where I think it will be different.
"He's a funny horse. He's a mystery."