Favored Well Armed avoided the dreaded "Dubai Bounce" with an easy front-running victory in the $300,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO) in track record time over the revamped Polytrack surface at Del Mar July 19.
The victory earned Well Armed an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Trainer Eoin Harty, though, may be thinking of something longer. He said afterward that the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) Aug. 24 at 1 1/4 miles is "definitely" the next goal for the 5-year-old Tiznow gelding.
The WinStar Farm homebred went over the $1 million mark in career earnings with the $180,000 winner's share from the San Diego, his second grade II triumph.
The Del Mar main track has been playing about two seconds faster than it did last year, trainers say, and marks over the two-year-old surface have been falling daily since the meet opened July 16. But that takes nothing away from Well Armed's effort. He shaved nearly four seconds off the previous Polytrack standard, and he went under the wire with jockey Aaron Gryder patting the brilliant bay on the neck.
"I was very confident with him today," said Gryder. "I rode him that way. He's a free-flowing horse with a big stride, and he was running easy with his ears pricked. It wasn't a matter of giving him a breather; he had a breather all the way. A horse like this makes my job easy."
The final time of 1:41.57 for the 1 1/16-mile distance was solid for any dirt surface, and it was the fastest San Diego Handicap time since Skimming won the first of his back-to-back victories in 2000.
Harty said that he was more concerned with the track than he was about how Well Armed would bounce back from a third-place finish in the March 29 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), which was his last start.
"I was holding my breath over the track," Harty told TVG. "It's not a speed favoring track, and I thought, if anything, that would be my undoing."
Gryder went to the front on Well Armed from the start, with Global Hunter clinging close to the early pace. Fractions were :23.29, :46.89, and 1:10.62, but Well Armed was doing it effortlessly. Surf Cat, who broke a bit tardily for David Flores but hustled up to rate in third through the stretch the first time, moved into closer contention on the final turn.
But Gryder asked Well Armed for a response approaching the quarter pole, and Well Armed spurted away from both Global Hunter and Surf Cat to lead by four lengths in upper stretch. The winner was hand-ridden to the wire, and Gryder only showed him the whip.
"Aaron did a fantastic job," Harty said. "He opened up on them on the turn, and it was come and catch me after that."
Surf Cat, with a late effort, came out in the stretch to cut the lead to 1 1/4 lengths at the end. It was another 1 1/4 lengths to 9-1 outsider Mostacolli Mort, who charged from dead last under Tyler Baze with a big wide bid around the final turn to get the show spot while finishing in the middle of the track.
Collecting $60,000 for running second, Surf Cat also went over the $1 million mark with earnings of $1,015,420 for owners Aase Headley and Marsha Naify.
Well Armed earned his third win in five U.S. starts since transferring here from Dubai last fall. He also raced in Great Britain for trainer Clive Brittain. In the World Cup, Well Armed set the pace before he was overtaken by Curlin with a quarter-mile to run. He finished eight lengths behind Curlin. In his race prior to the World Cup, Well Armed won the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita by a head over the since-retired Heatseeker.
Well Armed won for the fifth time in 17 starts and boosted his earnings to $1,030,803. He owns four wins and a second in six tries on synthetic surfaces.
The winner is out of the Notebook mare Well Dressed.
Sent off at odds of 17-10, Well Armed carried 117 pounds to victory and paid $5.40, $3.60, and $2.80. Multiple grade II winner Surf Cat, under top weight of 120 for trainer Bruce Headley, returned $4.40 and $3.40, capping a $2 exacta worth $20.20. Everest Stables' Mostacolli Mort, coming off back-to-back optional claiming wins for trainer Julio Canani, was $4.60 to show.
Mr Napper Tandy closed well for fourth at 59-1, followed by Rebellion, Global Hunter, Tall Texan, You Got Me Rocking, Magnum and Racketeer.