Former claimer Willyconker became a grade I winner when he outlasted odds-on choice Mr. Commons by a neck in a thrilling finish to the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (gr. IT) March 3 on the Santa Anita turf course (VIDEO).
The Irish-bred 5-year-old, sent off at odds of 10-1, is a son of little-known stallion Pyrus. Willyconker raced for as little as a $25,000 claiming tag Oct. 30 at Santa Anita. Willyconker was picked for $40,000 by astute trainer Doug O'Neill out of a claiming race at Del Mar last August.
The result was no fluke. Willyconker flashed his improving ability in the one-mile Arcadia Stakes (gr. IIT) when he flew late to finish just one length behind Mr. Commons Feb. 4.
Given a perfect ground-saving trip by Joel Rosario for O'Neill and owners Martin Gardner, David Kenney, and Michael Viele, the stalking Willyconker ran the one mile on firm ground in 1:33.88.
"I just tried to lay in behind the speed, save ground and make one run with him," Rosario said. "He tried hard today to beat Mr. Commons and ran a really good race. I was very happy to turn the tables on Mr. Commons today. My horse gave everything he had."
Angled to the outside of Compari, who had taken in the final sixteenth of a mile, Willyconker hit the lead in deep stretch and then held on desperately in the final strides as Mr. Commons charged home. Mr. Commons, who lacked room for jockey Mike Smith on the far turn, barreled home after getting clear to just miss.
"I had an eighth of a mile to get by him, and I didn’t do it," Smith said. "That’s pretty much what it is. (Mr. Commons) was a bit dull on his punch. He’s got a quicker turn of foot than that. He accelerated really well for about three jumps, and then he kind of hung at that point, kind of idled.
"I reached back and encouraged him a time or two with the stick, and that didn’t seem to help. He kind of pinned his ears back, and I went to a hand ride, using the reins. But the winner never folded. They went a mile in 33, so I can’t complain. It was a good race. We’ll just have to come back and see if we can get them next time."
Compari, who pressed pacesetter Jimmy Simms through fractions of :23.17, :46.95, and 1:10.62, settled for third with Rafael Bejarano aboard, one length behind Mr. Commons. Second choice Jeranimo ran fourth.
Willyconker ran his record to 7-4-1 in 20 lifetime starts and nearly doubled his earnings to $362,960 with the winning purse of $180,000. The bay gelding, bred by Islanmore Stud, is out of the Trempolino mare Arme Fatale.
“What a great ride," said an enthused O'Neill as the owners celebrated around him. "That’s why you use a guy like Rosario. He just had him in a perfect spot and then as soon as they turned for home, he got in the right line and just got it done.”
Sent off as the fourth choice in the field of eight, Willyconker carried 118 pounds and paid $23.20, $6, and $3.60, while topping an exacta worth $48.20. The John Shirreffs-trained Mr Commons, who won the Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. IIT) over the course prior to the Arcadia, lost in grade I company for the third time and returned $2.80 and $2.20. Compari, who won his first two starts of the year for trainer Marty Jones, paid $3.40.