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HORSE RACING

California Flag has quite a team behind him

The 5-year-old comes back from last year's defeat to win the Turf Sprint by 13/4 lengths.

November 08, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

It was a World War II veteran, a former quarter horse trainer and a teenager from Louisiana who combined their talents Saturday to end up in the winner's circle on Breeders' Cup day at Santa Anita.

The freaky fast 5-year-old gelding California Flag took the lead soon after the start and was never challenged in winning the $1-million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint by 1 3/4 lengths over Gotta Have Her in 1:11.28 for 6 1/2 furlongs.

How the connections came together is a story of three different worlds.

Owner Keith Card, 82, a former Navy veteran, bred and raised California Flag on his 10-acre ranch in Murrieta. Brian Koriner, 43, who spent 10 years as a quarter horse trainer, figured out how to get California Flag to relax and sustain his speed after a 10th-place finish in last year's Turf Sprint. And Joe Talamo, 19, of Animal Planet's "Jockeys" fame, rode like a cool veteran instead of a teenager winning his first Breeders' Cup race.

"It's awesome," Card said. "I'm humbled by the experience."

Card has been racing horses since the 1960s, and California Flag is the best he has produced. His wife, Barbara, is so fond of the gray son of Avenue Of Flags that she kissed him on the nose in the winner's circle.

"He loves it," she said.

A year ago, California Flag was engaged in a speed duel with Mr. Nightlinger on the same downhill turf course that produced a 20.73 opening quarter and 41.81 half-mile. This time, California Flag, the 3-1 favorite, took the lead soon after the start and recorded times of 21.50 and 43.09. The race was pretty much over.

"I think we learned from our mistakes last year," Koriner said. "There wasn't a crazy speed horse in there. And I just told Joe, when you leave don't get excited. Let him leave on his own."

What a roller coaster year it has been for Talamo, who was scheduled to ride the Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge until the colt was scratched because of an injury. In between, his profile has risen with the help of his riding skills, TV appearances on Animal Planet and Conan O'Brien's show and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Talamo couldn't wait to get to a computer to update his Twitter page.

"I'll put something big on it," he said.

It was only days ago that California Flag gave his connections a scare when he dumped his exercise rider in the morning and ran off.

"It was the concern sitting 30 feet from him and feeling helpless when he threw her off and ran down the race track," Koriner said. "I was thinking about the phone call I was going to have to make."

Everything turned out fine, and Card, who has suffered from recent health problems, basked in the glow of a day to remember.

"I love that horse," he said. "He's the greatest horse I've ever bred or hoped to breed."

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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