Favored Willow O Wisp wore down Juliesugardaddy in the final strides to win the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap (gr. IIT) for 3-year-olds on the Del Mar turf Saturday.
The Florida-bred Misnomer gelding was under heavy pressure from jockey Garrett Gomez to get the job done by a head at odds of 6-5 in 1:41 2/5 for the 1 1/16-mile distance. El Roblar, the 8-5 second choice in the field of seven, settled for third, two lengths behind, after fighting jockey Victor Espinoza early in the race while stalking slow fractions.
Vladimir Cerin trains the winner, who was making his first start since June 26 when he captured the 1 1/8-mile Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hollywood Park by two lengths.
Willow O Wisp stalked the pace about a length behind while racing off the rail. Juliesugardaddy set fractions of :24 4/5, :49 1/5 and 1:12 3/5 and continued to lead into the stretch. During the long run to the wire, Juliesugardaddy inched away, but Willow O Wisp gradually drew nearer. Juliesugardaddy drifted inward slightly down the lane as Alex Bisono tried to keep him straight under left-handed urging.
"I thought that the race was playing right into my hands down the backstretch," Gomez said. "But I thought I almost blew it because I let the horse on the lead go so slow."
Cerin said he didn't think Willow O Wisp would catch Juliesugardaddy.
"No, I didn't think we could catch him," Cerin said. "They were going so slow early; when I saw :49, I thought there was no way. But I was really impressed with my horse. He showed he doesn't need the lead, and it looks like the farther he goes the better."
Cerin said Willow O Wisp is destined for the 1 1/8-mile Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) on Sept. 5.
The winner earned $90,000 for owner Robert A. Alexander while winning for the fourth time in 11 lifetime starts. Willow O Wisp has banked $269,240.
Fred W. Pace bred Willow O Wisp, who is out of the Woodman
mare Willow Woodman. The bay began his career racing at Calder for Michael Lightner.
Willow O Wisp paid $4.80, $3.80, and $2.40. Juliesugardaddy returned $6 and $3. El Roblar, who won a division of the Oceanside in his last start July 20 on the Del Mar grass, was $2.40 to show.
Then came in Excelsis, Steal Your Thunder, Boggy Creek, and Stedfast McStaunch.