Gary Tanaka's Passinetti, a 7-year-old gelding who had been turned out for more than three years and was nearly given away to become a riding horse, became racing's resurrection story of this Easter season Sunday by winning the $400,000 San Juan Capistrano Handicap (gr. IT) at Santa Anita.
The San Juan Capistrano is the traditional closing day feature of the 85-day Santa Anita winter/spring meeting.
An 11-1 shot in the field of nine, Passinetti, carrying 111 pounds and jockey Brice Blanc, edged past All the Boys in deep stretch to tally a half-length victory in the about 1 3/4-mile Capistrano. The final time was 2:46 4/5 on a firm turf. Champion Lodge, the 6-5 favorite, closed stoutly to be third, beaten by 1 1/4 length.
"This horse literally was going to be given away six months ago," said winning trainer Ben Cecil. "He's been out in the paddock for three years, and I said to Mr. Tanaka, 'let's bring him back in, have a go, see what happens,' and here we are, winning the San Juan Capistrano. I mean, it's unbelievable."
Passinetti, who arrived in the United States from France in August of 1999, had just one career win 13 outings when he was turned out following a third-place finish in a low-level allowance race at Santa Anita on Dec. 26, 1999. Prior to that, he had been eighth in the Hollywood Derby (gr. I). In three races since his comeback started in February under Cecil's care, however, he had registered both a three-length victory in a 1 1/8-mile optional claiming event and a fourth-place finish – but beaten by only a length – in the 1 1/8-mile Arcadia (gr. IIT) on April 6.
Cecil said he suspected the Slew o'Gold offspring only wanted more distance.
"The main thing was to get the horse to relax," he said. "He was a little rank (in the Arcadia) and I put some long gallops into him. We didn't work him in between races because it was coming back a bit quick (14 days). But his last three races back, he ran like he wanted to run all day long. He won going nearly a mile and a half in France. I've been pretty confident about his chances coming in here. Lighter weight going a longer distance makes a big difference."
Passinetti saved ground at the rail while fourth some five to six lengths off the lead through most of the early running. Timber Cruiser was allowed to set a lonely lead in fractions of :48 2/5 for the half-mile, 1:13 1/5 for six furlongs, 1:38 3/5 for the mile and 2:06 for 10 furlongs before giving way in the stretch. All the Boys, with Patrick Valenzuela aboard and 115 pounds, went to the lead after tracking in second throughout, and edged away to a length advantage down the lane. But he could not hold off Passinnetti, who made a three-wide move on the turn and took control close to home under strong urging from Blanc.
Irish bred Champion Lodge, a six-length winner of the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey (gr. II) in his last start on a yielding turf March 15, was well back in seventh with a half-mile to go. He closed nicely under Alex Solis while carrying top weight of 117, but couldn't make up the necessary ground, settling for third, 3/4-length ahead of the 9-2 second choice, Nazirali.
"It's a dream come true for me to win the San Juan Capistrano," said Blanc, a 30-year-old rider from Lyon, France who is now based in Kentucky. He returned to Southern California, his former base, on Easter because there was no racing at Keeneland and he was free him to accept the mount.
"I've always wanted to win this race," he said. "It was all the horse. He looked great in the paddock, too. And Ben said he'd been going really good lately. He relaxed well today behind some horses and I waited for the right time to make a move. So when I asked him to run, he did and he finished so strongly."
Sandy Shulman, a trainer since the late 1970s who had a great opportunity to win his first grade I with Champion Lodge, conceded, "He was too far back and had too much to do. The same thing happened in the San Marino (fifth by three lengths on Feb. 20). This horse will run but you can't give him too much to do."
The victory was the third in 17 career starts for Passinetti, who began his career in France. His $240,000 share of the San Juan Capistrano purse increased his career earnings to $387,976. Katom Ltd & Kilboy Estates in Kentucky bred the bay from the Lyphard mare Cloelia.
Fifth choice in the nine-horse field, Passinetti paid $24.20, $10 and $5.40. All the Boys returned $11.80 and $4.40. Champion Lodge's show price was $3. The $2 exacta was $208.40.
Bob Baffert sent out 43 winners to capture his record seventh consecutive Santa Anita training title, bettering the mark of six he shared with Red McDaniel, who led each meet from 1950-55.
Patrick Valenzuela won 94 races to capture his first Santa Anita jockeys' championship. It was the most victories in the meet since Kent Desormeaux had 112 winning rides in 1994-95.