Big John B, a $50,000 claim in April, qualified for the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) with a runaway victory in the $200,000 Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT) Aug. 22 (VIDEO).
Making his stakes debut as the 8-5 favorite in the 1 3/8-mile grass event at Del Mar, Big John B seized the lead turning for home and blew away his nine rivals to win by 5 1/4 lengths in a time of 2:12.81 over firm going. It was the fourth consecutive victory for the little-known 5-year-old Hard Spun gelding.
Owned by Michael House, who claimed him at Keeneland April 11, Big John B was recently transferred to Phil D'Amato, the former Mike Mitchell assistant, from trainer Mike Stidham. After winning his first start for D'Amato over the Santa Anita Park lawn, Big John B showed an immediate affinity for Del Mar's tight turf course. He won an allowance/optional claiming event at 11 furlongs July 30 by 7 1/4 lengths.
"I think as of now, we're looking for the Breeders' Cup. That's the plan," D'Amato said. "This horse, every race he improves and his confidence is through the roof right now."
Ridden in all three Southern California starts by Mike Smith, the dark bay gelding settled toward the rear of the field before advancing on the leaders up the backstretch. With long, fluid strides, Big John B reeled in front-running Unbridled Command rounding the final bend, taking command heading into the homestretch and drawing off as much the best.
The pace was very quick for the distance with French import Si Sage on the early lead in the long journey before he was overtaken on the outside by Cogito, who clipped off a half mile in :47.69. Unbridled Command took over as they finished moving through the stretch the first time, getting six furlongs in 1:11.49, and he opened up a 4 1/2-length margin on the rest after recording a 1:35.67 mile.
Unbridled Command, winner of the 2012 Hollywood Derby (gr. IT), ran out of gas soon after that as Big John B swept past on his way to the easiest of victories, leading by two lengths at mid-stretch and drawing clear under strong handling from Smith.
"He was just traveling easy out there. He's learned how to be a runner," said the Hall of Fame rider after his meet-leading sixth stakes win of the season at Del Mar. "There was some stuff happening in front of us and I was having to tap on the brakes. But he was fine with it. He'd pick it right back up. He's an impressive horse."
The Del Mar Handicap is a Breeders' Cup Challenge series event for the 1 1/2-mile BC Turf, to be contested at Santa Anita Nov. 1.
"I think he can run with any of the horses in this country right now. Those Euros? We'll just have to see who they send," Smith said.
Brylynn Farm bred Big John B in Florida out of the multiple graded stakes-placed Doneraile Court mare Baldomera. Big John B is a half brother to grade III winner Circle Unbroken and is one of three winners from four starters produced by his dam.
Bench Light, racing at the back for much of the trip, burst home from between horses late to get up for second in his graded stakes debut under Kent Desormeaux for trainer Mike Pender. Bench Light edged the forwardly-placed Bright Thought and Rafael Bejarano for second by a neck. D'Amato also trains Bright Thought.
Big John B has been claimed four times since last September and he has been productive. He registered his sixth win from nine starts this season and ran his career line to 11-5-3 in 28 races with earnings of $458,805.
Carrying 118 pounds, Big John B paid $5.20, $3.80, and $2.80 while keying a $35.60 exacta with Bench Light, who returned $8.40 and $5. Bright Thought, in his first start for D'Amato, paid $3.80.
Fourth was Starspangled Heat, who was followed home by Unbridled Command, Poshsky, Si Sage, Fire With Fire, Topic (whose saddle slipped on the backstretch), and Cogito, who gave way on the final turn and was eased.
Scratched out of the race were Irish Surf, who is to run in the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) Sunday, Quick Casablanca, and Ice Cream Truck, who was on the also-eligible list.