Trainer Julio Canani insists he doesn't have Derby fever yet. But after the way his The Pamplemousse glided to victory as the 1-2 choice in the $200,000 Sham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO) at Santa Anita Feb. 28, that's going to be more difficult to believe as time marches on toward the first Saturday in May.
“He is a nice horse," Canani said after watching The Pamplemousse draw away in the stretch. "Every race, this horse is improving more."
Victory for The Pamplemousse, with his long, fluid strides, seemed never in doubt as he bounded effortlessly over the Pro-Ride en route to a six-length victory in the 1 1/8-mile Sham. Fractions were decent -- :23.08, :46.51, and 1:10.29 -- as the front-running gray son of Kafwain appeared to widen his advantage at every call for jockey Alex Solis.
The Pamplemousse took command over runner-up Take the Points leaving the final turn. Solis delivered one left-handed crack of the whip mid-stretch, then hand-rode the two-time stakes winner to the wire for the easiest of victories in a sharp time of 1:47.86. It was the third straight victory for The Pamplemousse, who appears ready to challenge Pioneerof the Nile for Southern California supremacy in the 3-year-old ranks.
“I’ve never ridden anything like him," Solis said. "The way he’s been training, I expected something like this. He has such a high cruising speed and he’s getting more and more amazing. He has such a good mind and he was real relaxed the whole way.
"If you want to get an idea of how he’ll do going a mile and a quarter, I switched to my left stick and hit him one time at the eighth pole and he just took off. He’s unbelievable.”
Canani said the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at nine furlongs April 4 is the next race for The Pamplemousse.
Since stretched out to a route distance in his third start, The Pamplemousse has not been beaten and has barely been headed. He broke his maiden by 2 3/4 lengths at Hollywood Park Dec. 14 at 1 1/16 miles. In his most recent start, the one-mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita Jan. 17, he turned back favorite Square Eddie, last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) runner-up, by two lengths in a time of 1:35 1/5.
Owned by Bienstock and Winner Stable, Alex Solis Jr., Jeff Strauss, Tom Lenner and Skyline Stables, The Pamplemousse was purchased for $150,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sale for 2-year-olds in training last March. He was picked out of the auction by the jockey's son, a bloodstock agent. The colt is named for a popular Del Mar restaurant.
The Pamplemousse means 'grapefruit' in French. Strauss, the restaurant's owner-chef, was among the crowd celebrating in the winner's circle.
"I think I'm the only animal sweating more than the horse," he said.
Canani admitted he was more jittery than the horse before the race.
“I’m always nervous, whether I’m running a $10,000 claimer, I’m nervous anyway, because it’s in my blood.”
The Pamplemousse added $120,000 to his graded stakes earnings, which now stand at $180,000. His career bankroll-- from a record of 3-0-1 in five starts -- is $209,280. Clarkland Farm bred The Pamplemousse in Kentucky. He is out of the Rubiano mare Comfort Zone.
Take the Points, a two-time winner making his stakes debut for trainer Todd Pletcher, held second for Garrett Gomez by 1 3/4 lengths over the maiden winner Mr. Hot Stuff, a full brother to 2008 Sham winner Colonel John.
“He ran real good," Gomez said of the runner-up. "I mean, he’s a lightly-raced horse. He’s run a route of ground one time. He shipped all the way across the country. He ran a respectable race. The winner looks like he’s the real deal, and my horse had to come to his playing ground.
"I had to squeeze him pretty much for three-quarters of a mile, and he took it. I think as he gets older and he gets stronger, he’s going to get better.”
Mr. Hot Stuff closed from far back in the field of 10 under Corey Nakatani to take third with a charge along the inside. It was a half-length to Bourbon Bay in fourth, who was followed by Unbridled Roman, Smart Bid, Mark S the Cooler, Hi Flyin Indy, Tiz True and Balfour Park. Lifeline and Ventana scratched.
The Pamplemousse paid $3, $2.60, and $2.40 while topping a $2 exacta worth $12.60. Take the Points returned $4 and $3.60. Mr. Hot Stuff was $3.60 to show.