The 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint
If you become involved with racing long enough, you will eventually hear the term "horse-for-course." This refers to a horse who likes a certain surface at a certain track and does consistently well on it.
This is especially true when it comes to Santa Anita's downhill turf course. One of the most unique surfaces in Thoroughbred racing, the downhill turf contains a feature not seen at any other track in the United States: the horses are required to race on a right-hand turn.
History will show that there are horses who have not done well over that particular layout, and that there are others who have thrived over it. And there were several who fit into the latter category in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
Going into 2009, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint was a new addition to the sport's annual fall event. Only in its second version, the Turf Sprint had also been contested on the downhill turf when it debuted a year earlier. For those in the field that had experience racing over the course, they held a sizable advantage over their opponents who were trying it for the first time.
One of the horses familiar with the downhill turf were California Flag, who had recently come off his second win in the Grade III Morvich Handicap (now called the Eddie D. Stakes). Finishing tenth in the 2008 Turf Sprint, the Cal-bred was coming into the race in good form thanks to a three-race winning streak, all of which came in stakes.
But California Flag was not the only horse to have a liking on the downhill turf. For example, Delta Storm placed in a minor stakes race over it during the 2008 Oak Tree meeting.
There was also Desert Code, who was a true "horse-for-course" in regards to the downhill turf. The defending Turf Sprint champion, he collected multiple wins over the course, including stakes like the Grade III Baldwin in 2007.
Get Funky was the 2007 Morvich winner, and had been second in the two subsequent renewals. Gotta Have Her had a history of navigating the course well, and she entered the Turf Sprint off a victory in the Grade III Senator Ken Maddy Stakes three weeks earlier.
The last horse to have tried the surface was Noble Court, a graded stakes winner who had taken the listed Joe Hernandez Stakes during Santa Anita's winter/spring meet.
Contested on November 7, the 2009 Turf Sprint brought a full field of fourteen horses, and close to half knew what it was like to run about six and one-half furlongs over the downhill turf. If any of them emerged as champion at the wire, it could be said that having that education of the course was instrumental in forging that result.
The start went well for everyone, and Canadian Ballet went straight for the front. His hold on first place was brief, however, for California Flag and Joe Talamo sped from the gate and took control before reaching the right-hand turn. The gray/roan gelding was ready to run, and he was setting a fast tempo. Securing the inside part of the course, he set an opening split of 21.50 as the field followed him. Canadian Ballet maintained second, while Silver Timber and Get Funky occupied third and fourth, respectively.
Moving around the turn, the half-mile time was disclosed: 43.09. The race was moving at a rapid pace, even for the downhill turf. But California Flag, with his white blinkers and the green silks of Hi Card Ranch, was not wavering. In fact, he expanded his lead on the dirt crossing before the homestretch. Some of the closers started their final runs, but no one was matching California Flag's drive. Ahead by several lengths with a furlong to go, the gelding stayed on his inside path, running towards the biggest victory of his career. Emerging from the pack came Gotta Have Her, whose course prowess visibly showed. But no one was on the level of California Flag, who finished the Turf Sprint more than a length clear of the filly after putting on a riveting performance in 1:11.28.
The win gave Talamo, trainer Brian Koriner, and Hi Card Ranch their first Breeders' Cup triumph, and it handed California Flag the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association awards for Cal-bred Turf Horse and Co-Horse of the Year in 2009. To top it all off, California Flag became only the third Cal-bred to win a Breeders' Cup race, joining Tiznow (2000 and 2001 Classic) and Thor's Echo (2006 Sprint). In California racing history, those accomplishments put the grandson of Seattle Slew in rare company.
California Flag went on to win some more Grade III stakes on the downhill turf, including becoming the only three-time winner of the Morvich. In his honor, Santa Anita named a race for him, and the California Flag Handicap has been part of the track's autumn stakes schedule since 2013. And several runnings of it have been on his favorite course.
His overall win total on the layout made California Flag a bona fide "horse-for-course." But the 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint made him one of the legends of the downhill turf.