Three of the best sprinters in the country were based in Southern California last year, but there was a lot of track-to-track crisscrossing and they seldom ran in the same races.
The new year could be different, if Sunday's $100,000 El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita is any criterion. Lucky Forever and Lit De Justice are scheduled to meet at 5 1/2 furlongs.
Desert Stormer, the 6-year-old mare who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint last October at Belmont Park, will stay within her own division for a while and is a probable starter in the $150,000 Santa Monica Handicap for distaffers in three weeks.
The El Conejo will be the first race since July matching Lucky Forever and Lit De Justice. Neither won the Hollywood Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park as Pembroke set a world record, running 5 1/2 furlongs on grass in 1:00 2/5. Lit De Justice was second, Lucky Forever faded to last.
The first time Lucky Forever and Lit De Justice raced last year, going 6 1/2 furlongs on dirt in the Rich Cream Handicap at Hollywood Park, Lucky Forever also set a world record. His 1:13 1/5 clocking led to a 14-length defeat for Lit De Justice, who was typically stubborn while being loaded into the starting gate.
Lucky Forever's problem has been consistency. Trainer Gary Lewis' 7-year-old gelding seldom runs two good races in succession. He went on a three-race losing streak after the Rich Cream. And after a win at Bay Meadows in September, he ended the year with two losses, the last by half a length to Powis Castle in the Vernon E. Underwood Stakes at Hollywood. Lucky Forever broke awkwardly in the six-furlong race, then ran on the wrong lead foot all the way through the stretch.
Lit De Justice, at 119 pounds, is the high weight in the El Conejo, but the short distance appears to favor Lucky Forever, who has been assigned 118 pounds. Lucky Forever explodes from the gate, and when he wins, it's on the front end.
Lit De Justice needs time to get rolling and sometimes leaves himself too much to do. In his last start, at Hollywood Park three weeks after the Breeders' Cup, trainer Jenine Sahadi's 6-year-old gray made up nine lengths but still lost by a nose to Bon Point. In the mud at Belmont, Lit De Justice trailed by 10 lengths before finishing finishing third, 2 1/4 lengths behind Desert Stormer.
The Eclipse Award for sprinting, which will be announced Thursday, is expected to go to either Desert Stormer or Not Surprising in a tight vote. Desert Stormer won four of seven starts, was second two other times and pulled off an extraordinary feat in the Breeders' Cup, winning after going 76 days between races. Not Surprising, who ran fourth in the Breeders' Cup, won eight of 14 starts.
Horse Racing Notes
Lit De Justice finished second to Phone Roberto in last year's El Conejo, then was dropped to sixth for interference. . . . Other starters in Sunday's six-horse field are Fu Man Slew, A.J. Jett, Andado and Lakota Brave. . . . Dare And Go, idle since March, lost by a head Friday to Goldigger's Dream. Dare And Go, winner of the Strub, had not run since finishing third behind Urgent Request and Best Pal in the Santa Anita Handicap. . . . In Caesars Palace's future-book odds for the Kentucky Derby, Unbridled's Song, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is the 4-1 favorite. Cobra King and Ide are both 6-1, and then come Hennessy at 11-1 and Maria's Mon at 12-1.