Flashback: California Flag aces Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint

By Keeler Johnson, Special to HRN
October 15, 2019 08:56am

There he is, charging down the hill at Santa Anita like an Olympic ski jumper poised for takeoff, gathering speed while so focused, so in the zone, that the remarkable nature of his performance is lost in the moment, in the mastery of the technique.

He is California Flag, bred in the Golden State with an obscure pedigree no one would describe as “regal” or “blue-blooded.” Yet somewhere in unheralded genetics of this powerful Thoroughbred sprinter is the magic recipe for success over the unique downhill turf course at Santa Anita. From his sire, the allowance winner Avenue of Flags, and his dam, the maiden Ultrafleet, California Flag has somehow inherited an astonishing affinity for racing “down the hill,” with the wind whistling through his mane like a storybook stallion.

California Flag, of course, is not a storybook stallion, but rather ordinary gray gelding with extraordinary speed. And his fondness for Santa Anita has been foreshadowed by his graded stakes-winning sister Cambiocorsa, with her near-flawless 8-for-10 over the downhill turf course at Santa Anita.

But California Flag is about to take the notion of a course specialist to an entirely different level. It’s Nov. 7, 2009. He’s already won two editions of the Morvich Handicap (G3) sprinting down the hill at Santa Anita, and now here is in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, facing a tough field of global challengers. And he’s absolutely running them off their feet.

He’s alone under 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo, making a mockery of his 13 rivals, rocketing the first quarter in :21.50 and the half-mile :43.09 to lead by two lengths. He gives the impression of being out for a stroll in the park, just galloping along for the love of running, and in a way he is. Fractions of :21.50 and :43.09 are leisurely compared to the jaw-dropping times of :20.73 and :41.81 California Flag posted in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, a race in which he understandably faded to finish 10th.

Yet “leisurely” for California Flag is still too fast for his no-longer-formidable foes. They’re straining, struggling, stretching to keep up, but they can’t; they’re caving under the pressure. Canadian Ballet, the pace-tracking filly, gives way gradually. Get Funky, already beaten by California Flag in the Morvich, fades even faster.

“The filly to our outside as we were angling over, she kind of took back,” Talamo toldTracy Gantz in the Nov. 14, 2009, edition of The Blood-Horse magazine. “He got to the lead, relaxed, and just kept opening up.”

The stretch runners try to get going down the lane, but California Flag is already gone. He’s in front by 3 ½ lengths with a furlong to go, still sprinting fast, forging to the finish line like he’s having the time of his life.

Gotta Have Her gains ground, cutting the margin, but she’s much too late to catch up. Cannonball, Group 1-placed at Royal Ascot, is gobbling up ground, but he’s left with too much to do. The wire comes sooner than expected, as it usually does when California Flag is blazing along on the lead, and the gray gelding flies across the finish line 1 ¾ lengths in front. He stops the clock in 1:11.28, just 0.18 shy of the course record. Which, by the way, belongs to California Flag.

Joe Talamo waves his whip in triumph, then pats California Flag on the neck. The winner, still full of run, gallops out strongly like he could go around again. On this day, with the whole world watching, no one was ever going to defeat California Flag.

During the ensuing years, California Flag traveled the country — even the globe — testing his speed in some of the world’s greatest grass sprints. But he saved his strongest runs for Santa Anita, where he happily sprinted down the hill like a mythological trickster, chuckling at the rivals who vainly chase him over hill, over dale, down the stretch of his favorite turf course.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.


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