His mentor, Charlie Whittingham, built part of a Racing Hall of Fame reputation by winning major races with horses coming back from long layoffs. So when trainer Neil Drysdale saddles Fiji today in the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita, he'll be borrowing a page from Whittingham's book, trying to win a Grade I stake with a horse that hasn't run in almost a year.
"She might need a race," Drysdale conceded. "She could be a bit rusty, but hopefully I'll have her just right."
Prince Fahd Salman of Saudi Arabia has kept Fiji in training as a 5-year-old for only one reason, the chance to win the new Breeders' Cup race, the $1-million Filly and Mare Turf Stakes at Florida's Gulfstream Park on Nov. 6.
Last year, Fiji won the Yellow Ribbon and was voted the Eclipse Award as best female on grass.
Since Fiji arrived from England in 1997, Kent Desormeaux has been her jockey--for six wins, one second and a third in eight starts--but Drysdale has hired Jerry Bailey, the country's No. 1 rider with $13.2 million in purses, for the Yellow Ribbon.
It's not an easy assignment for either Fiji or Bailey. In the seven-horse field are Tuzla, winner of the Ramona Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 4, and Tranquility Lake, who ran fifth as the Ramona favorite after winning the Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita and the Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park earlier in the year.
A conservative trainer known for not over-racing his stock, Drysdale hadn't planned Fiji's run-up to the Breeders' Cup quite this way.
"We had her ready to run two or three times, but then there were minor setbacks," he said.
Fiji might have run at Santa Anita last winter, but a strained muscle kept her on the sidelines. She came close to starting on July 24, when she was entered in the Osunitas Handicap at Del Mar, a race that might have set her up for the Ramona. But Drysdale scratched her because of a cough.
The inactivity, though, put more weight on Fiji than Drysdale wanted to see.
"This summer, she was too heavy," he said. "But now she's down to racing weight again and I hope all systems are go."
"If I were a betting man," trainer Elliott Walden said, "I would say that a 3-year-old is going to win the Breeders' Cup Classic."
Five of the previous Classics have been won by 3-year-olds, but none since Concern in 1994.
"There's been a big depletion of the older horses this year," Walden said. "That's one of the reasons I think the 3-year-olds will stack up very well against the older horses in the fall."
If the Classic were run today, Behrens would be the favorite, but Walden's Victory Gallop, a premature retiree because of injury, beat him in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August. Behrens will run Oct. 10 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park before shipping to Gulfstream for the Nov. 6 Classic.
Meanwhile, Walden is running the two favorites--Menifee and Ecton Park--in today's $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Menifee, third at Saratoga as the Belmont Stakes winner, Lemon Drop Kid, won the Travers, is 9-5 on the morning line. Ecton Park, fourth in the Travers, is 5-2.
Of the five 3-year-olds Breeders' Cup Classic winners, three--Sunday Silence, Unbridled and Concern--prepped for it by winning the Louisiana Derby.
Horse Racing Notes
Prime Timber, winning for the first time since he won the San Felipe on March 13, switched to turf Friday and won the In Excess Stakes. Second in the Santa Anita Derby, Prime Timber had run only once since a fourth in the Kentucky Derby, finishing a disappointing fourth at Del Mar on Sept. 3. Prime Timber, who's had foot problems, is ineligible for the Breeders' Cup and will probably run next in another grass race, the $250,000 Oak Tree Derby, on Oct. 23.
David Flores, who rode Prime Timber, won the last four races on the card. . . . Laffit Pincay's win with Payload was No. 8,792. . . . California tracks have been authorized by the California Horse Racing Board to conduct trifecta betting in races with fields of at least six horses. Previously, the minimum was eight horses. . . . Daylami, the second choice Sunday in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, may not run if weekend rains continue to soften the Longchamp course. Thirteen other horses are probable.