Ron Crockett's homebred Harvard Avenue finished with a flurry under a perfectly timed move by jockey Garrett Gomez to nose Areyoutalkintome at the wire and give trainer Doug O'Neill the first two finishers of the $110,900 El Conejo Handicap (gr. III) on New Year's Day at Santa Anita Park.
Harvard Avenue trailed the nine-horse field in the 5 1/2-furlong event as 2006 Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) winner Proud Tower Too and Roi Charmant contested a sizzling pace. The 6-year-old gelding moved up off the rail on the turn and swung wide for a clear run though the lane to just get up impressively in the final jump.
Harvard Avenue's winning time of 1:02.68 was less than one second off the track mark set by Kona Gold (1:01.74) in 1999.
"When we came off the turn, I really couldn’t ask for a horse to be running any better than he was today," Gomez said. "I thought I won it, but I thought I was going to win by a half length, the way he was rolling.”
Areyoutalkintome, who won the El Conejo in 2005, opened up a short lead in deep stretch after passing Proud Tower Too, even though jockey Victor Espinoza lost his whip at the furlong pole.
“That was tough, but he ran good,” Espinoza said.
Areyoutalkintome finished one length in front of 2-1 favorite Proud Tower Too, making his first start for trainer Sal Gonzalez since winning the Golden Shaheen March 25. Proud Tower Too carried top weight of 121 pounds, three more than the winner.
“He ran great for being off nine months," Gonzalez said. "He’s pretty fast and he’s fresh, so I figured he’d be on the lead, but we just came up a little short."
Harvard Avenue, coming off a seven-furlong allowance win on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track Nov. 15, recorded his first stakes victory since capturing the Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita in April 2005. The Kentucky-bred son of You and I was away from action for more than 14 months before coming back Nov. 1 at Hollywood in an optional allowance/claiming event, finishing third.
Harvard Avenue won for the fifth time in 22 starts and increased his earnings to $475,126.
"Areyoutalkintome is always like that. Like Victor said, when he makes the lead, he kind of waits a little bit, but he ran dynamite," O'Neill said. "I love this. I had such a horrible start this meet. It’s a good way to bust out of a little slump.”
O'Neill had one win from 25 starts going into Monday. He won the 2005-06 Santa Anita training title last meet with 50 wins.
The fractions were :21 2/5 for the opening quarter mile, :44 for the half. They ran five furlongs in an eye-catching :56 1/5.
Harvard Avenue, who is out of the Saratoga Six mare Carrie Can, paid $13.60, $5.60, and $3.80.
Areyoutalkintome returned returned $4 and $2.80.
Proud Tower Too, with his regular rider David Cohen aboard, was $2.80 to show.
Brooker finished fourth, followed by Red Warrior, Roi Charmant, Count Orange, Bushwacker, and Premium Saltine.