The Thoroughbred Corporation's homebred Johar, a horse better known for losing close calls, eked out a nose victory in Sunday's Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) over an unlucky Rock Opera.
The 3-year-old son of Gone West out of the Lear Fan mare Windsharp, with Alex Solis riding for trainer Richard Mandella, covered the 1 1/8-mile on firm turf in a stakes-record 1:46.00.
Rock Opera, a confirmed speedster, was committed to run with pace-setting Sunkosi, who went :23.33, :45.42 and 1:10.70 for six furlongs. After passing the longshot and taking a clear lead in the stretch with Laffit Pincay Jr. aboard, the pace may have softened Rock Opera just enough for the fast-closing Johar to tag him at the wire.
Inesperado, the 7-5 favorite, suffered his first defeat in the United States after three consecutive stakes wins, finishing fourth under Kent Desormeaux. Desormeaux replaced jockey Corey Nakatani, who suffered a back contusion and muscular soreness when his mount, Sing Because, was involved in a spill in the fifth race.
Inesperado had defeated Johar by one length in the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) on Sept. 7, with Rock Opera third, 1/2-length behind Johar.
Mountain Rage, Royal Gem, Sunkosi and Dream Machine completed the order of finish. All starters carried 118 pounds.
Johar was bumped and squeezed at the start, settled in fifth down the backstretch, then came out to rally under pressure from Solis and get up at the wire.
Mananan McLir, ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, closed stoutly to take third, two lengths behind Rock Opera.
"I think (Johar's) a horse who will get bettter as he gets older," said Mandella, whose barn is heating up after winning a pair of graded stakes last weekend at the Santa Anita Oak Tree meeting.
Mandella, who plans to enter three in the Breeders' Cup races Oct. 26 (Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic, Listen Indy in the Juvenile and The Tin Man in the Turf), said there would be no such move with Johar.
"The Hollywood Derby, most likely," he told TVG. "First, I'm going to take him to a French restaurant for dinner."
Johar ended a five-race losing streak while capturing the $90,000 first-place purse. In the last four tries, three in graded turf stakes, he was no worse than a length behind while recording three seconds and a third.
"Thank God he got one today." Solis said. "I was worried because the seconds were starting to pile up a little bit for him. But really, he's a very nice horse, and the longer distance is what he needed. He's bred to go a mile and a half and that's what his best game is going to be. He got squeezed hard at the start, but after that he was in a good position the whole way."
Overall, Johar is 3-for-10 lifetime – he did not race as a 2-year-old – with career earnings of more than $280,000.
Sent off at 5-2, Johar paid $7.80, $4.20 and $3.40. Rock Opera returned $4.40 and $3.60. Mananan McLIr paid $7. The $2 exacta was $31.20.