Neither big nor blessed with a pedigree that would indicate distance, Music Merci will have to do as the best active California 3-year-old until something better comes along.
The little gray gelding hasn't come by his status through default. Music Merci ran a big race Sunday, winning the $132,550 San Rafael Stakes by nine lengths at Santa Anita before 38,971 fans.
Undefeated King Glorious, who beat Music Merci twice last year, is still in light training at Golden Gate Fields because of a knee problem, and unbeaten Houston, who seems twice the size of Music Merci, surely would have been more competitive than the four horses the San Rafael winner beat Sunday.
But until they reappear, Music Merci's easy victory gives his trainer, Craig Lewis, all the encouragement he needs to go on to the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Handicap on March 19 and the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Handicap on April 8.
Manastash Ridge, a two-time winner at the Santa Anita meeting, tried to keep up with Music Merci in the early part of the one-mile San Rafael and was easily shooed away by the time the race reached the far turn. Manastash Ridge nosed out Past Ages for second place and it was another 1 1/2 lengths back to Yes I'm Blue, with Gum finishing last.
Chris McCarron, riding Yes I'm Blue, claimed foul against Past Ages and Eddie Delahoussaye for a bumping incident at the quarter pole, but the stewards didn't change the order of finish.
By a total of $917 in the win pool, Music Merci went off a slight favorite over Past Ages and paid $5.60, $3.40 and $2.20. The winner's time was an excellent 1:34 4/5, which was four-fifths of a second faster than older expensive claimers ran earlier in the day. Manastash Ridge paid $4.40 and $2.40, while Past Ages paid $2.40.
Even Lewis was surprised at the ease with which Music Merci won, because the horse hadn't run since his second-place finish to King Glorious in the Hollywood Futurity nine weeks ago.
This was Music Merci's first appearance at Santa Anita since he bled from the lungs while running sixth as the 1-2 favorite in the Norfolk in October. Lewis felt that Music Merci, who has been running with an anit-bleeder medication since then, might have still been feeling the effects of the Norfolk when he finished a distant fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs three weeks later.
"That, and the fact that he was also chasing some pretty good horses that day," Lewis said.
Regarding atonement by Music Merci at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby, Lewis is not ready for a moon launch yet.
"If he belongs, then we'll take him," Lewis said. "At least we know he can run the first mile."
Gary Stevens is two for three on Music Merci since he won with him the first time, in a division of the Hoist the Flag on Nov. 25 at Hollywood Park.
"He ran awesome," Stevens said Sunday. "I was thinking all night about this race with all the speed and the time off this horse had.
"Halfway through the day, I said he's the class of the field and to let him run. I was afraid if I took him back and tried to rate him the way speed was playing, he might not get anything. He's 100% and has really matured. It's amazing that a little time can make a horse grow up, but he's a lot more manageable and focused. I don't see why he can't come off of it, and I like where I'm sitting in the 3-year-old picture."
Music Merci is the result of a mating between Stop the Music and Merci Croquet. Stop the Music, a contemporary of Secretariat, seldom won running farther than a mile and has sired few route horses, although one of his offspring, Temperence Hill, did win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
"It's a question about how far he can go," Lewis said. "We know he can handle a mile pretty good. I thought he might get tired today, and maybe he did, but we left something in his tank."
When McCarron, who rode Music Merci to victory in last year's Del Mar Futurity, came by Lewis' barn the other day, the trainer told the jockey that the horse would be better this year than he was as a 2-year-old. Lewis said McCarron had a short response that he wouldn't repeat.
"This horse has grown and gotten a lot stronger," Lewis said. "He still only weighs about 900 pounds, but 800 pounds of that is heart."
Laffit Pincay rode Manastash Ridge. "I thought I was in a good position down the backside, but the other horse opened up," Pincay said. "The winner was much the best today."
Delahoussaye said that Manastash Ridge ducked out at the quarter pole, which caused Past Ages to bump with Yes I'm Blue.
"Past Ages came out a little abruptly," McCarron said. "It slowed me down, but I guess it didn't have any bearing on the outcome."
Music Merci, earning $76,300 to increase his total purses to $683,000, was bought as an unraced 2-year-old for $51,000 by Harvey Cohen and Lonnie Pendleton. Cohen, 53, suffered a heart attack Wednesday and Lewis reported that the owner's condition was improved.