He will not run until next month, but by far the most intriguing horse at Santa Anita these days is Skywalker. Despite a bum leg and his busy spring as a breeding stallion, the 5-year-old son of Relaunch will use the Oak Tree season to prepare for an attempt at a second straight win in the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic.
The 32-day Oak Tree meeting will open today--first post is at 1 p.m.--with the $60,000 Autumn Days Handicap for fillies and mares. Five major races highlight the meeting, topped in money by two $400,000 stakes--the Oak Tree Invitational Nov. 1 and the Yellow Ribbon Nov. 15.
The seven-race, $10-million Breeders' Cup will be run at Hollywood Park Nov. 21--five days after Oak Tree closes--and many of the horses at Santa Anita will use the Santa Anita dates for their tuneups. Two of the first three winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile--Chief's Crown in 1984 and Capote in 1986--won Oak Tree's Norfolk Stakes to set them up for the $1-million races.
After Skywalker was moved up from third to second place on a stewards' disqualification in last year's Col. F.W. Koester Handicap at Santa Anita, he returned a month later and as a 10-1 longshot in the Breeders' Cup Classic, destroyed the horse-of-the-year chances of Turkoman and Precisionist.
But Skywalker's next campaign ended just after it started. In his first race of 1987, in the Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita in February, he ran second and suffered a cracked left front shin.
Tom Tatham, who manages the syndicate that bred and races Skywalker, announced that the horse would be sent to stud, at Cardiff Stud Farm in Creston, San Luis Obispo County, with the proviso that he might also race again. In another era, it was fairly common for top horses to breed and then return to the track--Seabiscuit did it, for example--but today it is rare.
Not so rare, however, for trainer Michael Whittingham, who also has Truce Maker, a 9-year-old who was second at Louisiana Downs, making a start after being away for breeding season. Truce Maker will be sprinting on the grass during the Oak Tree meeting.
Generally, getting stud horses to run again is kind of like getting a soldier back to the farm after he's seen Paree .
There are exceptions, though, and Silveyville, a California-bred, successfully went back and forth twice, finally being retired from the races as a 9-year-old this year, after he had earned $1.2 million.
Old English Rancho in Ontario, where Silveyville stands at stud, has used horses in dual capacities for a number of years. The Pie King, Fleet Nasrullah, River Bank, Oligarchy and Color Bearer are among those.
Skywalker and Truce Maker apparently have short memories, though. They seem to have blocked out the recent, relatively easy life of a breeding stallion.
"These horses have come to Santa Anita with no thoughts of chasing fillies around the barn," Whittingham said. "In the mornings, they've been bowing their necks and really running hard."
After Skywalker had been introduced to 35 mares, reportedly getting 28 of them in foal, it was a workout at Cardiff Sept. 21 that prompted Tatham and his partners to aim for the Breeders' Cup again.
With Lev Fanning, the manager of Cardiff, and veterinarian Alex Harthill watching, Skywalker and jockey Frank Olivares covered five furlongs on the farm's 3/4-mile track in just over 59 seconds. After that, another set of X-rays showed that time and rest had healed the break.
There is time for only one race before the Breeders' Cup, but that may be just enough for Skywalker. The Santa Anita Derby winner was injured in the 1985 Kentucky Derby, came back a year later with one prep and then won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap in his next start at Hollywood Park.
Skywalker's Oak Tree race will be either the Goodwood Handicap Nov. 7, or the Koester the next day, which was his prelude to the Breeders' Cup last year.
"The Goodwood might come up a little salty," Whittingham said. "So I'm leaning to the Koester. I don't want to knock this horse out in the prep. I want him sharp when we run for the big money."
In only 17 starts, Skywalker has earned $2.1 million with 7 wins, 3 seconds and 2 thirds. A win in the Classic would move the horse well over the $3-million mark and put him in fourth place on the money list--behind John Henry, Spend a Buck and Slew o' Gold.
"If he doesn't have any setbacks, like catching a cold or something, I think we can have him ready for the Breeders' Cup," Whittingham said.
The horse the trainer feels he has to beat in the Classic is Ferdinand, who happens to be trained by Charlie Whittingham, Michael's Hall of Fame father. In a recent line established by the Frontier Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas, Ferdinand was listed as the 2-1 favorite in the Classic.
"It may get to be less unusual for a horse to leave stud and return to racing," Michael Whittingham said. "With all the big pots around these days, it's just too tempting to bring a horse back and try to win some of the money."