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The Murray Jumps Up in Class

With purse at $400,000, a quality field of nine is set to go. The Tin Man is the expected favorite.

May 10, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

When racetracks boost stakes purses, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The Arlington Million, run in suburban Chicago, went from $1 million to $2 million in 2000 and only seven horses showed up, the smallest field in years. Arlington Park cut the pot back to $1 million in 2001 and 12 horses ran.

For a year at least, Hollywood Park's decision to jack up the purse for the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap from $75,000 to $400,000 has been a boon on all levels.

Nine horses will run today, two more than last year, and they're the kind of horses that aren't just there to fill a gate. Two are millionaires and three others have earned at least three-quarters of a million. Four have won Grade I races in North America, and another is a Grade I winner in England.

The small-purse Jim Murray, which it was for its first 13 years, had little chance to receive graded recognition; now the Graded Stakes Committee may be required to pay attention when it's first able to consider the grass stake in 2005.

The favorite in the 1 1/2-mile Jim Murray is expected to be The Tin Man, who's trained by Richard Mandella. When Mandella won the race twice before, with Kudos in 2001 and Lazy Lode in 1999, the winner's share of the purse was chump change compared to today.

"It'd be nice to win this one with the bigger purse," Mandella said. "It'd also be nice to win another one named after Jim. When he came by the barn in 1993, not long after I had won four races on Breeders' Cup day [two Breeders' Cup wins and two wins on the Santa Anita undercard], I couldn't believe it. For a writer of his stature to be genuinely interested in everything I said, you just had to be impressed."

Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Times, died in 1998.

"[Mandella] was almost a one-man pick six," Murray wrote about the trainer's big day. "He grew up in a paddock. Dad was a blacksmith ... Young Dick was around horses when his classmates were around hotrods. He got to know more about horses than a Pony Express rider."

Mandella, who was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, is running The Tin Man off a layoff of nearly three months. The 5-year-old gelding won the San Luis Obispo Handicap by 9 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita on Feb. 15, but after that a virus knocked him out of a prep race for the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, forcing Mandella to rethink the horse's campaign.

"Coming back and running a mile and a half is asking a lot," Mandella said, "but I think I've got him ready to run his best race."

Trainer Bobby Frankel, who has won the Murray six times, is running Denon, who has won both of his Hollywood Park starts.

Storming Home, who'll be saddled by Neil Drysdale for the first time, has been running against the best in England, where he earned almost $900,000. Winner of the Grade I Champion Stakes at Newmarket, Storming Home beat only one horse in his last start, the Japan Cup in November.

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Other races on the Hollywood Park card include the Los Angeles Times, formerly known as the Los Angeles Handicap, and the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap. Men's Exclusive, a 10-year-old gelding, is a threat in the Los Angeles Times. Sunday Break, a promising 3-year-old whose season ended prematurely in 2002, is looking for his first win in almost a year in the LeRoy.... Ocean Terrace, undefeated before his last-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, has been retired because of knee injuries.... Possibilities for next Saturday's Preakness are Kissin Saint, third to Empire Maker and Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial, and Foufa's Warrior, a Maryland-based gelding who was a badly beaten third in the Illinois Derby.... Funny Cide, who gave trainer Barclay Tagg concern when he was led from the barn to the paddock a half-hour before he won the Kentucky Derby, will be schooled before a smaller crowd between races today at Belmont Park.... Volponi, idle since his Breeders' Cup Classic win in October, lost by a head to Speightstown in a seven-furlong allowance at Belmont Park. Volponi's next race is expected to be the Brooklyn Handicap on June 18.

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