Trainer Bob Hess Jr.'s impressions of Wekiva Springs have run the gamut.
"The first time I saw him gallop, I thought he was just a horse," Hess said Saturday. "The first time he worked three-eighths (of a mile), I thought he was a Kentucky Derby horse. Now, I definitely think he's a mile-and-a-quarter horse."
Wekiva Springs was a strong 1 1/8-mile horse Saturday, winning the $216,800 San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita by 1 1/2 lengths over Dramatic Gold, with Dare And Go third. Favored Strodes Creek, off to a slow start, finished fourth in the seven-horse field.
This was Wekiva Springs' sixth consecutive victory. After a sixth-place finish in his first start, in September 1993, Wekiva Springs won three in a row around two turns, by as many as 11 lengths, but cracked hoofs knocked him out of last year's Kentucky Derby and he missed the rest of the Triple Crown season.
A virus prevented Hess from running the gray colt until last fall, and then at the end of his 3-year-old season he had two sprint victories, including the Underwood Breeders' Cup Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10.
Wekiva Springs will get the chance to run 1 1/4 miles, the Derby distance that he never tried, in the $500,000 Strub Stakes on Feb. 5. Hess' winter goal is the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, also at 1 1/4 miles, on March 11.
Wekiva Springs, who has been ridden by Kent Desormeaux in all seven of his races, was fifth after a half-mile Saturday, with Luthier Fever setting the pace on a track that had been upgraded from good to fast two races earlier.
"My horse had almost lost contact with the field," Hess said. "But he's got a mind of his own. At the five-eighths pole, it looked like he dropped out of sight. I thought we might run last at that point."
The leaders were Dare And Go, Luthier Fever and Dramatic Gold at the quarter pole, with Wekiva Springs rallying from out of the mist and fog on the outside. When Hess' horse took the lead in mid-stretch, Dramatic Gold tried to come back at him, and might have stuck his nose in front with about 50 yards left, but Wekiva Springs outfinished him.
"Our horse has got a heart as big as those mountains (the San Gabriels), if you could see them," David Dizney said. His father, Floridian Donald Dizney, bred Wekiva Springs through a mating of Runaway Groom and Jetting Angel and races the colt in partnership with Jim English.
"I'm glad I've got patient owners," Hess said. When Dizney was looking for a West Coast trainer, his son ran a computer search of California conditioners and that led them to Hess. They also were impressed with the way the 29-year-old trainer developed River Special.
Wekiva Springs paid $6.40 as the second choice and was timed in 1:48 2/5. Dramatic Gold, third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finished three-quarters of a length ahead of Dare And Go, who was 2 1/2 lengths better than Strodes Creek.
Dare And Go, making his dirt debut after 11 grass races, had the most intriguing excuse, a piece of cellophane that caused him to take a jump near the eighth pole. Jockey Gary Stevens retrieved the obstacle, showed it to trainer Richard Mandella and said: "That's what got us. Somebody didn't put it in their pocket."
Horse Racing Notes
Softshoe Sure Shot, becoming the fourth 9-year-old to win a stake at Santa Anita, registered a half-length victory over favored Ferrara in the $159,100 San Carlos Handicap. Softshoe Sure Shot, who was 18-1, won for the 16th time in 46 starts and pushed his earnings over the $591,000 mark. . . . Cardmania, another 9-year-old and a champion sprinter, finished fourth, and Bertrando, also an Eclipse Award winner, was next to last. They each carried six more pounds than the winner. . . . Queens Court Queen led all the way for a 5 1/2-length victory over Wende in the $107,000 San Gorgonio Handicap, with Trishyde, the 7-10 favorite, finishing fourth among five horses. . . . At Bay Meadows, Jamron, trained by Gary Lewis and ridden by Goncalino Almeida, was a nine-length winner on a sloppy track in the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby. . . . Jockey Julie Krone had surgery to insert a pin into her left pinky finger which she broke in a spill Friday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.