Cal-bred stars among most underrated San Felipe winners

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

March 11th, 2016

As the main lead-in to the Santa Anita Derby (G1), the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe (G2) has a rich and storied past all its own. First won by an eventual Kentucky Derby (G1) winner in 1954 by Determine, the race has also been taken down by fellow Derby heroes Affirmed, Sunday Silence, Fusaichi Pegasus, and California Chrome. Dual classic winner Point Given is another giant on the winner's roster.

In the second part of a series looking back at underrated winners of Kentucky Derby preps, here are five winners of the San Felipe that should not be forgotten.

Free House (1997)

His name conjures up memories of the brilliant three-year-old class of 1997, but the bright gray will always be in the shadow of arch-rival Silver Charm, who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, a Dubai World Cup (G1) and a spot in the Hall of Fame. In eight meetings with Silver Charm, this California-bred won three times, the first of which was a three-quarters of a length decision in the San Felipe. The other two were in the Santa Anita Derby, by a nose, and the 1999 Santa Anita H. (G1).

Racing only seven times combined at ages four and five, the Paco Gonazalez trainee was also a four-length winner of the 1998 Pacific Classic (G1) and narrowly lost his final career start to Real Quiet in a thrilling renewal of the Pimlico Special (G1) in 1999.

Soul of the Matter (1994)

Arguably the best horse ever bred in West Virginia, he posted a mild upset over Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Brocco and Hollywood Futurity (G1) star Valiant Nature when taking the San Felipe by 2 1/4 lengths. His other highlight at three came in the Super Derby (G1), where he scored by a neck over his subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) conqueror Concern.

First or second in five of his final six outings, he is best remembered for his tenacious stretch battle with the legendary Cigar in the inaugural Dubai World Cup. Giving that star all he could handle over a deep, tiring Nad al Sheba surface, he missed by a half-length in what to proved to be his final start.

Bertrando (1992)

Eclipse Award winners can't technically be considered underrated, but I'll make an exception in his case. If not for a pulsating exhibition from the French colt Arazi in the 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and a head-scratching upset by another French horse, Arcangues, in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), this California-bred would have been a champion juvenile and quite possibly a Horse of the Year at four, thus a potential Hall of Fame inductee.

A hard-fought victory in the San Felipe proved to be his only victory in an abbreviated sophomore campaign, but there was much else to admire this son of Skywalker for.

Hill Rise (1964)

Perhaps best known as the mount Bill Shoemaker chose for the Kentucky Derby instead of eventual winner Northern Dancer, one can't fault Shoe entirely for the decision. The big colt ripped through the prep season winning the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, and Derby Trial before the world discovered he couldn't quite keep up with his smaller Canadian rival.

After winning the Santa Anita H. at four, the California-bred found further fame on the turf. In addition to taking the 1965 Man o' War at Aqueduct, he enjoyed a successful 1966 campaign in England which included a victory in the prestigious one-mile Queen Elizabeth II S. at Ascot.

Your Host (1950)

The fourth California-bred on this list was part of an excellent crop that include eventual Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Hill Prince and dual classic scorer Middleground. Favored to defeat both in the Kentucky Derby, he ran out of steam after setting a contested pace of :22 4/5 and :46 3/5. It was his only unplaced finish in a 12-race campaign at three.

The first horse to complete the San Felipe/Santa Anita Derby double, he ultimately found his sweet spot in races at 1 1/16 miles or less, including an upset over Hill Prince in their third meeting: the 1950 Thanksgiving Day H. at Hollywood Park. Saved for stud after sustaining fractures in his right foreleg and shoulder during a race in 1951, he earned eternal fame as the sire of five-time Horse of the Year Kelso.

(Hill Rise photo: James Edwin "Ed" Weddle)

Also in the series, check out five underrated winners of the Gotham (G3).