Sent off at odds of 1-5, Surf Cat might have given his supporters reason for concern as he trailed the small field in Hollywood Park's $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) into the far turn. But by the time they reached the stretch, the Bruce Headley-trained 4-year-old colt had overtaken his four rivals and was firmly in control en route to his third successive grade II victory.
It was a visually impressive win for the dark bay son of Sir Cat
, who outclassed his rivals by 3 1/2 lengths in a time of 1:40 3/5, three-fifths off the track record for 1 1/16 miles. Surf Cat, who along with Lava Man is favored for the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (gr. I) this summer, tied the LeRoy record for smallest win payoff ($2.40) that was established by Spectacular Bid in 1980.
"Around the turn he felt like a train going down a hill," jockey Alex Solis said of Surf Cat. "He is very powerful, just a great horse. He is way better this year. He's been doing that going short (stalking sucessfully), and did it again today."
Headley said he didn't pay much attention until the late stages.
"Then I saw lightning flash!" he exclaimed. "That was some kinda' move. It's really a thrill to have a horse like this."
Away a step slowly from his rail post, Solis allowed Surf Cat to trail into the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch, where he was about seven lengths off the pace (:23 2/5, :46 3/5) set by Spellbinder, the 5-1 second choice. Surf Cat began to roll on the final turn, rallying on the inside of his rivals before switching to the outer to tackle Spellbinder coming off the bend. He opened up by about five lengths while gearing down in the final sixteenth. Solis urged him home with a vigorous hand ride while showing his star the stick as he drifted in a bit late.
Surf Cat carried high weight of 121 pounds, three to six more than his rivals.
Spellbinder, with Martin Pedroza in the irons, held on for second by 1 1/2 lengths over Dixie Meister, who was in a good striking position for David Flores but never kicked in. Keep On Punching, who dueled on the early pace, finished fourth, while Gallardo trailed.
The victory was the fourth in a row for Surf Cat, dating back to an allowance victory at Oak Tree in October. After a four-month break, last year's Swaps Breeders' Cup (gr. II) winner returned to win a pair of sprint races at Santa Anita this winter – the San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) and the Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) last month. Surf Cat has won seven times in 11 lifetime starts for owners Aase Headley, the trainer's wife, and Marsha Naify, with three seconds. His only poor effort was a sixth-place finish in last year's Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar. He hasn't lost since.
The William Taylor Nicholls and Gainsway Farm Kentucky-bred Surf Cat was a $25,000 Fasig-Tipton buy in February 2003. Trainer Headley said earlier that he is looking at the 1 1/8-mile Californian (gr. II) June 17 and the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (gr. I) on July 8. Surf Cat has won three times in four starts at Hollywood.
Surf Cat, who increased his earnings to $562,420, paid $2.40, $2.10, and $2.10. Spellbinder returned $2.20 and $2.10. Dixie Meister was $2.10 to show.