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HORSE RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Lightly Raced Valiant Nature Set for 'Felipe

March 18, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

On St. Patrick's Day at Santa Anita's Barn 99, the phone rang early in the morning. When Ron McAnally answered, the voice at the other end said, "How come you're not drunk yet?"

McAnally laughed. The intoxicating moments for the 61-year-old trainer this week have come when he thinks and talks about Valiant Nature, who will be one of the favorites Sunday in the $200,000 San Felipe Stakes, the next-to-last important prep race for California's contenders for the Kentucky Derby. All that's left after the San Felipe is the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Although Valiant Nature has run only three races, McAnally is already dusting off a pedestal. The Hall of Fame trainer says Valiant Nature is more versatile than his full brother, Tight Spot, and adds that he's as good a Derby prospect as Donut King, who would have been the third or fourth betting choice had he not been knocked out of the race with an 11th-hour bruised foot at Churchill Downs in 1962.

Those are strong comparisons. After all, Valiant Nature hasn't run as a 3-year-old and was 16-1 in his last race, on Dec. 19, when he beat the apparent 2-year-old champion, Brocco, in the Hollywood Futurity. Brocco was undefeated and had won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but after his three- quarter-length loss to Valiant Nature, the division title went to Dehere.

"I still can't get over the price they made my horse that day," McAnally said. "In the paddock, I looked up and he was 30-1 at one point. But I knew we had only one horse (Brocco) to beat."

Before the Hollywood Park race, Valiant Nature had run greenly in his debut, shying from dirt being kicked in his face, and finished 10th against maidens at Santa Anita on Oct. 10. Five weeks later, he won by 3 1/2 lengths going a mile on grass at Hollywood.

In the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, both Brocco and Valiant Nature will be making their first starts in three months, since McAnally's colt had to run 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 3/5--three-fifths of a second off the track record--to beat the Breeders' Cup champion.

While most of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders in Florida and California have been butting heads, Valiant Nature will run just twice before the May 7 Kentucky Derby--on Sunday and in the Santa Anita Derby. With just five starts overall, he would be one of the most lightly raced horses to run in the Kentucky Derby in recent years. The last horse to win the Derby with only two starts as a 3-year-old was Sunny's Halo in 1983.

It irks McAnally to hear and read suggestions that Valiant Nature might not have been sound since the Hollywood Futurity.

"Brad Free (in the Daily Racing Form) figured out that I've worked this horse a total of about 10 miles since the first of the year," McAnally said. "If there was something wrong with the horse, I wouldn't have been giving him all these works. He's one of the few horses in my barn that doesn't get Bute (a legal painkiller). He doesn't get any medication at all. He's in perfect shape."

Many of Valiant Nature's morning exercises have been on grass.

"Not as many horses break down on turf as they do on dirt," McAnally said. "It's easier to keep a horse sound if you work him on grass."

Bred and owned by Verne Winchell, Valiant Nature has the same parentage as Tight Spot, who was a son of His Majesty and Premium Win, a Lyphard mare. Tight Spot, who raced for a Winchell partnership from 1989-92, won 12 of 21 starts, earning $1.5 million. Before running ninth in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Gulfstream Park in 1992, Tight Spot was undefeated in eight starts on grass.

To run Valiant Nature early this winter at Santa Anita, McAnally would have had to shorten him up on distance after he had already run around two turns at Hollywood Park.

"That wouldn't have been my style," McAnally said. "This horse is a very willing worker in the mornings, so we've gotten him ready through a lot of long, slow works. I've never worked him in company (with another horse), but on the days when he gallops, I've put horses in front of him, so he can get used to having dirt hit him in the face. He's won both of his races on the front end, but if somebody else wants to go Sunday, we'll be content sitting off the pace."

McAnally considered running Valiant Nature in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita two weeks ago. Of consideration was that Fumo Di Londra, an Irish-bred colt who had been bought by Sidney and Jenny Craig in Europe as a Kentucky Derby prospect, needed some dirt experience and was also nominated for the San Rafael. McAnally, who had also been training Fumo Di Londra, didn't want to run both horses in the same race, so he and Winchell decided to wait until Sunday.

In his American debut, Fumo Di Londra ran last in the San Rafael, beaten by 31 lengths.

"He trained great," McAnally said. "Then he didn't run a step. I've had other horses (from Europe) that have done that, too."

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