INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- More than six months has passed since Acclamation won his fifth consecutive stakes at Santa Anita last October. Since then, he has overcome a bruised foot that forced him out of training and secured his Eclipse Award, as the outstanding older male of 2011.
Acclamation's defense of that title begins in the $100,000 Inglewood Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Hollywood Park on Friday evening.
The Grade 3 Inglewood has arrived just in time for an enthusiastic, and anxious, trainer in Don Warren.
"It's exciting to get him back to the races," Warren said. "He's as ready as I think I can get him."
Acclamation will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, who rode Acclamation to his final two stakes wins of 2011 -- the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August and the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship at Santa Anita last October. Following the Hirsch, Acclamation was a candidate for the Breeders' Cup until the bruised foot surfaced.
Valenzuela, 49, announced his retirement in December, but reversed the decision earlier this month. He was booked on two mounts at Hollywood Park on Thursday's opening day of the spring-summer meeting.
With Acclamation, Valenzuela's strategy is obvious. He will take the 6-year-old horse to the lead. Acclamation raced on or near the lead through his five consecutive stakes wins in 2011.
Acclamation has only four rivals in the Inglewood -- Haimish Hy, Holladay Road, Smug, and Utopian.
Haimish Hy is winless in seven starts since the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby in 2010. Holladay Road won the Crystal Water Stakes and an allowance race at Santa Anita earlier this year, and was fourth in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap between those wins.
Smug makes his stakes debut in the Inglewood, having won an optional claimer at Santa Anita on March 24. Utopian made four starts at Santa Anita earlier this year, with his best result a second in the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes on turf on Feb. 11.
None of those rivals has the same front-running style as Acclamation.
"With the small field, not too many have speed," Warren said. "It looks like I'll inherit the lead and that's fine with me."
Returning from a layoff in a race over 1 1/8 miles is not a concern to Warren, who trains Acclamation for a partnership led by breeder Bud Johnston.
"I like it better," Warren said. "He's a true mile-and-a-half horse. I think it would be harder to run a flat mile. It looks like it will work out."
Acclamation has won the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap the last two years, and Friday's Inglewood Handicap is a prep for that race, which will be run this year on June 9.
"The race will get him fitter," Warren said. "We can get a race into him and get him ready for the Whittingham."
Beating Acclamation may be impossible, but Utopian could pose a threat if the favorite has a poor showing. Trained by John Shirreffs for Jerry and Ann Moss, Utopian was beaten a head by Slim Shadey in the San Marcos. In the San Luis Rey Stakes over 1 1/2 miles on turf on March 25, Utopian was with the leaders in early stretch but faded in the final furlong.
"We're hoping that cutback in distance will help him," Shirreffs said.
"Acclamation is a standout. He'll do his thing and we'll have to try and catch him."