ARCADIA, Calif. -- Trainer Ron McAnally threw a shocker into the Santa Anita Derby proceedings yesterday when he failed to enter probable second choice Valiant Nature and announced he would run the horse instead a week from Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
The Santa Anita field still includes nine horses, headed by 7-5 favorite Brocco, who drew the three-post. Tabasco Cat is now picked second by track oddsmaker Jeff Tufts at 5-2, followed by Soul Of The Matter at 3-1.
"No one had a clue this was going to happen," said Mike Mooney, track publicist at Santa Anita Park. "We had included Valiant Nature in our special advertising. Then two days before the race he goes elsewhere. But that's certainly the trainer's prerogative."
McAnally said he reached the decision Wednesday night after talking with the colt's owner, Verne Winchell. "This gives our horse more time to acclimate in Kentucky for the Derby and we can hit the Derby favorite, Holy Bull, head-on [in the Blue Grass]. If we're not good enough, we can just come home. It gives both races more balance. Before, it was just a one-horse race back there [in Kentucky]."
Randy Winick, Brocco's trainer, said: "This certainly changes the complexion of the race [Santa Anita Derby]. He was one of the main speed horses and it means the race will set up differently. It definitely means a significant horse has come out."
Gary Stevens, Brocco's jockey, said his horse now can lay closer to the pace than anticipated. Doug Peterson, trainer of expected pacesetter Fly'n J. Bryan, feels "It's better for us. It means it will give our horse a chance to relax."
McAnally, who reiterated that he intended to try to change tactics and bring Valiant Nature from off the pace in the Santa Anita Derby, said he will employ the same strategy against the speedy Holy Bull, who scored an impressive front-running victory in the Florida Derby last month at Gulfstream Park. "We don't expect to go out with him [for the lead]," McAnally said.
The track at Keeneland is expected to be deeper and more tiring than the hard, speed-favoring surface Holy Bull encountered in Florida. That should help Valiant Nature's chances. "That's just one of the many things we took into consideration," McAnally added.
Stevens said he has a lot of confidence in Brocco's chances tomorrow. "He ran a strong race off a layoff [when second to Soul Of The Matter in the March 9 San Felipe Stakes]. He has worked tremendous since then. He's improving and I expect him to run huge."
Stevens said he wasn't surprised Valiant Nature came out of the race. "At this point trainers are looking to keep their options open and to look for that race that will be the steppingstone to get to the [Kentucky] Derby. I don't think he was looking for another tough race like he had [when third in the San Felipe]."
Coupled in the betting at fourth choice at 5-1 odds in the Santa Anita Derby field are a pair of lightly raced colts, Strodes Creek and Numerous, trained by 82-year-old Charlie Whittingham.
Whittingham is putting blinkers on Strodes Creek for the first time, but was first called into the stewards to explain his reasoning since the horse won his last start without them.
"The horse was lugging in through the stretch and was lazy the first part of it," his rider, Corey Black, said about the horse's last start. Added Whittingham: "This has helped put him on his toes."
Strodes Creek is a son of Halo, the same stallion that sired Whittingham's 1989 Santa Anita Derby winner Sunday Silence, who subsequently won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Strodes Creek also has the same owner, Arthur Hancock III.
The field is rounded out by long shots Fly'n J. Bryan, Polluck's Luck, Wild Invader and Robannier.
Wild Invader was a last-minute entry by trainer Bobby Frankel, who said the son of Seattle Slew only has "a 10-percent chance of starting" and probably will run instead in the Wood Memorial next Saturday at Aqueduct. Wild Invader recently broke his maiden at Santa Anita on a sloppy track on March 19.
SANTA ANITA DERBY
What: 57th running of the Grade I stakes for 3-year-olds tomorrow at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $500,000 first, $275,000 second, $100,000 third, $75,000 fourth, $37,500 fifth, $12,500 sixth
Stakes record: 1:47, Lucky Debonair 1965
Track record: 1:45 4/5, Star Spangled 1979
Last year's winner: Personal Hope
Post time: 5:46 p.m. EST
Television: Live on ABC (Channel 13) "Wide World of Sports"
PP .... Horse ............ Jockey ....... ..... Odds
1 .. Polluck's Luck ... Eddie Delahoussaye .... 30-1
2 .. Tabasco Cat ......... Pat Day ...... ...... 5-2
3 .. Brocco ............. Gary Stevens ......... 7-5
4 .. Soul Of The Matter.. Kent Desormeaux ...... 3-1
5 .. a-Strodes Creek .... Corey Black .......... 5-1
6 .. a-Numerous ......... Chris McCarron ....... 5-1
7 .. Wild Invader ..... Laffit Pincay Jr ...... 30-1
8 .. Fly'n J. Bryan ... Pat Valenzuela ........ 15-1
9 .. Robannier ........ Chris Antley .......... 30-1
a-Charlie Whittingham entry