There are Kentucky Derby candidates in California besides Snow Chief, but not many. Only five horses have been entered to run in Sunday's $125,000 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita, and two of them aren't even nominated for the Triple Crown races.
The field for the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, in post position order, consists of Variety Road, Chris McCarron riding; Arewehavingfunyet, Laffit Pincay; Big Play, Gary Stevens; Majestic Island, Alex Solis, and Dancing Pirate, Eddie Delahoussaye.
Ferdinand and Bolger Magic, 3-year-olds that had been expected to run, were not entered because of the chance that there will be a muddy track.
Although the turnout doesn't reflect it, the San Felipe is the second of seven major races that precede the Kentucky Derby May 3, the five remaining being the Flamingo at Hialeah April 5, the Santa Anita Derby April 6, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, both on April 19, and the Blue Grass at Keeneland April 24.
Snow Chief won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 1, the first big race for this year's 3-year-old crop, and, having arrived back in California a week ago, is skipping the San Felipe to await the Santa Anita Derby.
Big Play and Dancing Pirate are the San Felipe starters who weren't nominated for the Triple Crown races with a payment of $600 by the preliminary deadline of Jan. 15. Should either horse run well Sunday, his owner could still make him eligible for the Triple Crown with a payment of $3,000 by the last deadline on Monday.
This is the first year that owners must nominate for all three Triple Crown races--the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes--at the same time.
Big Play, a Czaravich colt bought at a yearling auction by Gene and Joyce Klein for $175,000, ran for a $40,000 claiming price when he won by 10 1/2 lengths in his first start, at Santa Anita Jan. 20. He moved from there into stakes competition, finishing fourth in the Santa Catalina Jan. 29, when Ferdinand and Variety Road ran 1-2. On Feb. 14, Big Play won again, coming from behind to take a mile allowance race by a head.
Dancing Pirate was a $14,500 purchase by Morris Soriano, an owner-turned-trainer who registered his first stakes victory when the colt won the San Miguel Dec. 31.
Wayne Lukas trains both Big Play and Arewehavingfunyet, who will try to become the first filly to win the San Felipe in its 49-year history. Arewehavingfunyet won five stakes last year, but her best race might have been a second-place finish, behind Tasso, in the Del Mar Futurity. Snow Chief finished third in that race.
Variety Road will carry top weight of 120 pounds in the San Felipe, with Arewehavingfunyet next at 117 pounds. Actually, Arewehavingfunyet would have been the high weight but for the five-pound allowance that's given fillies.
Grand Allegiance, a 3-year-old who won the San Vicente Stakes a month ago, has been sidelined with a foot injury. Darby Fair, the last horse to beat Snow Chief, in the slop at Hollywood Park last November, has been taken out of training because of an ankle injury. Darby Fair and Snow Chief are both trained by Mel Stute.
The news was even worse in Florida this week for Tom Roach, whose 3-year-old colt, Regal Dreamer, died of a kidney infection. Regal Dreamer had run fourth in the Florida Derby March 1.
Regal Dreamer was bought back by Roach for $4,700 when no interest was shown in him as a yearling, then he went on to earn $240,000, more than a fourth of it for finishing fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes at Aqueduct.
Elsewhere on the 3-year-old front, Tasso will make his first start this year, running in the seven-furlong Manassa Mauler Stakes today at Aqueduct.
Tasso, the champion 2-year-old colt in 1985, was recently shipped to New York from Hollywood Park, where he had been training. Neil Drysdale, who trains Tasso, will probably run him in the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct April 5, then take the horse to Kentucky for perhaps one more start before the Derby.
"This is a very athletic horse, and he doesn't need a lot of strenuous training," Drysdale said. "It was a natural decision to bring him to New York. He trained very well at Aqueduct late last year before he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at this track."
Laffit Pincay, who rode Tasso in all three of his stakes wins last year, will be aboard today.
At Hialeah Wednesday, Meadowlake was fitted with padded shoes for his tender feet. Trainer Bert Sonnier is behind schedule with the undefeated colt, and it would appear that he has lost too much time to have him ready for the Kentucky Derby.
Sonnier's daughter, Sheila, is married to Alex Solis, Snow Chief's regular rider.
Solis probably has no idea how often trainer Mel Stute urged him to pull away from Badger Land when he and Snow Chief were dead even on the turn for home in the Florida Derby.
Stute, who was wearing a microphone for television, had no idea himself, until the tape was played back for him.