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Big 'Cap Unkind to Ladies

Island Fashion will try to make gender history in Saturday's $1-million race at Santa Anita.

March 04, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Dahlia, twice the horse of the year in England, defeated males regularly, but she ran ninth in the 1976 Santa Anita Handicap.

Silver Spoon is one of only three fillies to win the Santa Anita Derby, but she finished fifth in the 1960 Big 'Cap.

Next Move led Moonrush in the last sixteenth of a mile in the 1951 Big 'Cap, but Moonrush, under Johnny Longden, came back to defeat the filly by a neck.

Serena's Song, who had beaten males twice during her 3-year-old season, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch in the 1996 Big 'Cap, but she ran out of gas and wound up a badly beaten seventh.

Bayakoa, twice a champion within her division, was, as the Daily Racing Form chart read, "hopelessly beaten" while running last in 1990.

The history of Santa Anita's most prestigious race for older horses is fraught with other distaffers who have tried to win. None has. Forty have made the attempt. Nevertheless, in Saturday's 67th Big 'Cap, a 1 1/4-mile race worth $1 million, owner-breeder Jeff Nielsen and trainer Marcelo Polanco will try to defeat eight males with Island Fashion, a 4-year-old gray filly who has won three Grade I stakes but never faced the boys.

Trainer Richard Mandella, who will saddle the Big 'Cap favorite, the 6-5 Pleasantly Perfect, and is also running the 6-1 Olmodavor, glanced at Island Fashion's career past performances at his barn Wednesday morning, about an hour before post positions were drawn. Mandella didn't dismiss the filly. What jumps out is that Island Fashion has won at the Big 'Cap distance, when she won the Alabama at Saratoga last year. Southern Image, second on linemaker Jeff Tufts' morning line at 5-2, has raced only five times, never as far as 1 1/4 miles.

Island Fashion is 10-1, the fourth choice on the line, but Nielsen and Polanco say that they are running to win, not the $200,000 that goes to the second-place finisher or the $120,000 for third place. The winner earns $600,000.

"The owner likes to compete, I like to compete and the filly likes to compete," Polanco said.

Polanco, a 43-year-old native of Chile, where his grandfather trained two Triple Crown champions, is Island Fashion's third trainer. She began with Nick Canani, but when he signed on to train for Mike Gill's coast-to-coast operation, Barclay Tagg took over. Tagg, fresh from winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with Funny Cide, saddled Island Fashion for her Alabama win.

Then last fall, when Nielsen wanted to take a shot at some top California stakes, the filly moved to the barn of the Santa Anita-based Polanco. Nielsen, a real estate investor near St. Paul, Minn., knew Polanco from the days when he was an assistant to Julio Canani, Nick's father. Julio Canani trained Noble And Nice for Nielsen, when she finished in a dead heat for the win with Annual Reunion in the 1991 Santa Ana Handicap.

Nielsen and Polanco teamed up Sunday to win the La Habra Stakes with Very Vegas. Since returning to California, where she raced at the start of her career early last year, Island Fashion has run a close fourth on the grass in the Matriarch at Hollywood Park; and returned to the dirt for seven-furlong wins in the La Brea and the Santa Monica Handicap this winter at Santa Anita. Overall, Island Fashion has five wins and a second in 11 starts, with purses of $1.2 million.

"She's a very special filly," said Nielsen, who is the same age as his trainer. "She's successfully met a lot of challenges. You can take a look at her record and see that she's performed some very tough tasks. I enjoy the competitive nature of sports, and this is what competing is all about."

Kent Desormeaux, who has ridden Island Fashion in her last two wins, will be aboard again on Saturday. Desormeaux has won two Santa Anita Handicaps, with Best Pal in 1992 and Milwaukee Brew in 2002, and he also finished first with The Wicked North in 1994, before the stewards disqualified his horse and gave the win to Stuka in a controversial decision.

Since 1990, only two distaffers -- Serena's Song and Bayakoa -- have run in the Big 'Cap. Besides Next Move, the only other female to run second in the race was Gamely, who was unable to wear down Nodouble and lost by 1 1/2 lengths at equal weights in 1969. Island Fashion will carry 115 pounds, eight less than the top-weighted Pleasantly Perfect, the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic winner who began this year with a solid win in the San Antonio Handicap.

Island Fashion worked a half-mile Wednesday in 48 2/5 seconds. "Day by day, she impresses me," Polanco said. "She's a pretty big filly, and she's very professional. She loves this track, and the distance shouldn't be a problem.. Very good fillies can beat colts. They do it in Europe all the time."

*

Other stakes on Saturday's card are the $200,000 San Rafael and the $350,000 Jimmy Kilroe Mile. The San Rafael, at a mile, marks the return of Lion Heart, undefeated in three starts and one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Lion Heart hasn't run since winning the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20. The San Rafael drew 12 horses, including two on the also-eligible list. Also running are Imperialism, winner of the San Vicente, and Hosco, second in the San Vicente after winning the San Miguel. ... The Kilroe drew 14 horses, including co-high weights, Sarafan and Sweet Return. ... A fast track is expected for the Big 'Cap, which is the next-to-last race on an 11-race card with an estimated post time of 4:42 p.m. First post is noon.

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