Had Saturday's $65,750 Sierra Madre Handicap been run on the turf as it was supposed to have been, trainer Bruce Headley would not have allowed Halo Folks to run.
But because the week's rain had softened the grass course, the 6 1/2-furlong Grade III race was moved to Santa Anita's main track. As a result, Headley sent Halo Folks to the post with Chris McCarron aboard.
The result proved Headley correct. Halo Folks, a 5-year-old chestnut gelding, led from start to finish, covering the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15 2/5 to beat Pancho Villa, ridden by Gary Stevens, by a three-quarters of a length. Wise Strategy, with Sandy Hawley up, was third, a half-length back.
Halo Folks paid $3.00, $2.20 and $2.10; Pancho Villa paid $2.80 and $2.40, and Wise Strategy paid $2.40.
The victory, before a crowd of 28,548, was McCarron's third of the day and his ninth stakes win of the meeting. Headley, meanwhile, moved into a tie with Mel Stute in the training standings. Each has 14 wins, including four stakes victories.
"We got lucky with a lot of scratches," Headley said of the field, which had been reduced from an original 13 entries to just five runners. "Chris did a great job getting the lead."
McCarron got the California-bred, owned by Betty and E.W. Johnston and Judy Johnston of the Old English Rancho in Ontario, and Kjell Qvale of San Francisco, out of the gate smartly and had enough horse to hold Pancho Villa at bay. He gave Headley credit for the win.
"Bruce has sure done well with him," he said. "When I rode him at Hollywood Park (last May), he bled terribly from the nostrils. Rather than just treating him and giving him a little time to heal, Bruce let him out and allowed him enough time to heal properly.
"He was a good colt last year and he's able to run back to his potential this year because of a conscientious trainer."
Although Hawley made a late charge aboard Wise Strategy on the outside, and Pancho Villa tried to get through on the rail, neither was able to catch Halo Folks as the three came down the stretch.
"Pancho Villa hung in like a game horse," McCarron said. "He was right there with me, I couldn't leave him."
Said Stevens: "It was a clean race. I thought I had a real good shot at the quarter pole. I reached and hit him one time and from then on he was no problem. Chris' horse was just coasting pretty much."
Rounding out the field were Will Dancer and Detector.
Will Dancer, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, was considered a contender but proved not to be a factor, falling behind early by as much as seven lengths and never recovering.
"I had no excuses," Shoemaker said, declining to blame the surface. "He (Will Dancer) handled it all right. It wasn't that bad. The track's fast today." Saturday marked the eighth time in 23 runnings that the Sierra Madre Handicap has been moved off the turf. The last time was in 1983. Then, it was won by Chinook Pass, who went on to earn an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.
Headley can only hope that Halo Folks does half as well.
When nominations closed Feb. 5 for today's $200,000 San Antonio Handicap, fans at Santa Anita looked forward to a replay of last year's best race of the winter meeting.
Among the 17 horses nominated were Precisionist, Greinton and Gate Dancer, who had finished one, two, three, respectively, in the 1985 Charles H. Strub Stakes, with Precisionist barely edging Greinton at the wire and Gate Dancer just a half-length back.
Now it appears possible that none of the three will be running today. Trainer Ross Fenstermaker on Thursday decided not to enter Precisionist for weight reasons, fearing that a victory as the 127-pound high weight would further hinder his chances in the March 2 Santa Anita Handicap.
Then on Friday, Gate Dancer's trainer, Jack Van Berg, pulled his horse from the 1 1/8-mile race, saying that racing's richest active thoroughbred "just isn't quite where I wanted him."
Whether Greinton will run will not be decided until this morning, when trainer Charlie Whittingham has a better idea of the condition of the main track. Whittingham has said he will not run the English-bred 5-year-old in the mud.
Despite heavy overnight rain Friday and intermittent showers early Saturday, the track was listed as good through the first five races Saturday and then was upgraded to fast. If the same pattern develops today, chances are Greinton will run.
The San Antonio is the final major prep for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, and those who miss today's race will have to train up to the Big 'Cap without a prep. Greinton and Gate Dancer were second and third, respectively, in last year's Santa Anita Handicap, won by Lord at War.
The rain is continuing to cause trainers all kinds of problems. Whittingham, for example, had entered Strawberry Road in both today's San Antonio Handicap and Monday's San Luis Obispo Handicap, but by Saturday evening he still did not know which race to keep him in.