The final four days of racing for the 2010 winter/spring meet at Santa Anita Park will feature some great turf racing, beginning with today's feature race going a mile-and-an-eighth for fillies and mares with an optional claiming tag of $62,500.
Van Brit breaks from the outside post seven, looking to win for the third straight time at the meet and for the fifth time in six starts over Santa Anita's turf course.
“She’s very comfortable on it and she’s doing unbelievable right now too," said jockey Brice Blanc (pictured), who has been aboard in all four of Van Brit's victories at Santa Anita. "I’m expecting her to run really well again today. Maybe the course being a little softer or whatever it is, and it’s been two years now she’s run well every time she runs on it.”
Two of Van Brit's wins here have come at the open $50,000 level, with the other two coming in $40,000 optional claiming company. She hasn't found success running at today's level in the past, but she had an excuse in both of those races at Hollywood Park.
"We really didn’t have a chance to run at Hollywood until her first race back in the Fall and it was a sprint race and she’s not a sprinter," explained Blanc regarding Van Brit's fifth place finish in November, beaten by just under three lengths. She also finished a distant fifth in her following race at the level when rain forced the race off the turf course.
Contention runs deep today. Welken, who has finished first or second in all seven of her starts at Santa Anita, defeated Van Brit by over two lengths while winning here on New Year's Eve. Additionally, Gripsholm Castle drops in after finishing second in the Grade 2 La Canada and running behind Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita.
“Definitely, she’s stepping up a little bit (today). She’s going to have to step up as well and show what she’s got," said Blanc regarding the five-year old daughter of Van Nistelrooy. "She’s been a little closer on her own without me really asking her. She has some tactical speed. On this turf course lately it’s been really tough to come from way, way out of it, so it doesn’t hurt us if she puts herself a little more into the race.”
Blanc's riding style can also be attributed to the success he and the filly have shared.
“He fits her like a glove. He’s just an exceptional rider. He always has horses in good position and gives them a chance to get out," said trainer Vladimir Cerin, who has won with five of 10 starters using Blanc at Santa Anita in 2009-10. "If he has the best horse he’ll win."
"Instead of going five-wide around the turn and using up his horse, he always leaves a lot for the last part of the race. He out-finishes a lot of people when he gets momentum and he finds a way to get through on the rail. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.”
As far as being pigeon-holed into strictly being a rider that finds success on the turf with runners coming from off the pace, Blanc feels it's more a product of the horses he's asked to ride:
"As a jockey you have to adapt to the style of your horse. Right now, most of my horses are horses that come from way off the pace," said Blanc. "People think more of me as a rider who relaxes horses. They don’t come to me with speedy, racy horses. They come to me with the opposite to try and get them to settle down.”
While a few local riders have decided to move their tack out of town, something that Blanc did successfully a few years ago, he is committed to staying in Southern California.
"There’s still a lot of jockeys, but I’m hoping to pick up some new horses and some more business,” said Blanc. "I have a son and a wife so it was hard to travel every three months to different race tracks. That’s why I decided to come back here and stay in one place."
A native of France, Blanc first came to the U.S. in 1993 while on vacation with his jockey school. Nearly two decades later, he’s still here.
“When I first came, I didn’t think I would stay so long because I didn’t know what to expect. I saw it as an opportunity to learn a new language, meet new people, and be in one of the most beautiful places in the world doing what I love to do,” said Blanc. “I fell in love with this place and it worked out that way so far. I’m not looking at living anywhere else. It’s hard to leave this place, let’s put it that way.”
Another promising filly in Cerin's barn is Folk Dancer, who has won two sprint races since coming in from Calder Race Course in Florida.
“Folk Dancer is training really, really well," said Cerin. "I hope to run her in an allowance race on the 25th at Hollywood Park. I have a little higher expectations for her, and maybe that will come to fruition."
While Cerin has had success bringing horses in from Calder in the past, he is skeptical of that success continuing now that his little secret has gotten out.
"Eddie Truman, Jeff Mullins, Bob Hess, a lot of trainers are going to Florida. So, it’s more difficult than it was before," said Cerin. "I just think that a lot of people don’t claim horses in Florida so people run $50,000 horses for $25,000. So, if you pay $30,000 and bring them here you have a $50,000 horse and you’re way ahead of the game.”
While some other trainers are taking their stock to other parts of the country to run for bigger purses—amongst other reasons—Cerin is committed to the Southern California circuit.
"I can’t control what other people do,” he said regarding concerns about horseman taking their horses elsewhere. “We’re going to stay in California for the rest of my life."