Ninebanks and Surprise Halo turned the $150,000 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) into their own match race Sunday at Golden Gate Fields, battling from start to finish in the 1 1/8-miles turf race for 4-year-olds and up.
The two 5-year-old geldings hit the wire together, with Ninebanks prevailing by a nose. Royal Gem, the even-money favorite trained by Bobby Frankel, finished third, while Capt. Fly Hook finished last in the four-horse field.Surprise Halo, ridden by Frank Alvarado, set the pace while Ninebanks, under the guidance of jockey Ron Warren Jr., applied pressure from the outside. Ninebanks moved up to draw even with Surprise Halo in midstretch, gained the lead at the sixteenth pole and then fought off his rival to the finish line. "That worked out pretty good," said Warren. "I just tried to make it a two-horse race from the outset. I didn't want to put too much pressure on Surprise Halo and set it up for the other two horses. I just tried to soften him up a bit so we could outrun him down the lane. "Surprise Halo dug in game," Warren continued. "I thought I'd go right on by him, but he came back with a couple of surges. The good thing about Ninebanks is he'll keep his head in front if he makes the lead. He may not pull away, but he won't let another horse come back on and beat him." It was a tough loss for Alvarado."No excuses," said Alvarado. "I wish I could have let the other horse go. My horse likes it better outside but I was inside and there was nothing I could do." Royal Gem, winner of the Bay Meadows Derby in November, was flat in his 4-year-old debut Sunday. "He never really wanted to run like he needed to to get into contention," said jockey Russell Baze of Royal Gem. "I wasn't surprised he got beat but I expected a better effort than he gave me. He walked out of the gate and I kept pushing and pushing until he finally picked up the bit."Ninebanks, a California-bred son of Smokester, recorded his eighth victory in 27 career starts and posted a time of 1:50.07 on a course rated yielding. Owned by Peter Abruzzo and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Ninebanks banked $82,500. The check increased his earnings to $406,793.Ninebanks paid $7.20 and $3.80. Surprise Halo returned $2.60
There was no show wagering. (Chart, Equibase)