The front-running Grand Reward, ridden by John McKee, bolted to the early lead and held on for a neck victory over Second of June in Saturday's $490,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II).
Grand Reward, who turned in a game effort when fourth after setting the pace in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap March 5 in his last start, picked up his first graded stakes victory before an Oaklawn crowd of 39,787 that also witnessed the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I).
Trained by D. Wayne Lukas (who was not in attendance) for owners Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and co-breeder Mrs. Robert Lewis, Grand Reward is a 4-year-old son of Storm Cat
out of the standout mare Serena's Song (Rahy
Grand Reward and Second of June ran one-two the entire way, completing the 1 1/8-mile test for older horses in 1:49 2/5. Eddington, the prohibitive 9-10 choice in the small field of five, settled for third, nearly 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner. Eddington carried top weight of 117, spotting Grand Reward five pounds.
McKee, who picked up the most lucrative win of his young career, ground out soft fractions of :24 2/5, :49 2/5 and 1:13 1/5 on Grand Reward while maintaining an advantage of at least two lengths as they reached the far turn. He went to the whip a couple of times on the final turn and Grand Reward responded to lead by three lengths as they hit the stretch. They had just enough through the stretch to reach the wire first in a well-measured ride.
"Mr. Lukas told me to make the front, put up the softest fractions I could, and kick away," McKee said, "...and that's what happened. He and Sebastian did a good job preparing this horse."
For McKee, who won the Oaklawn riding title in 2004 in his rookie year at Hot Springs, Grand Reward capped a three-bagger.
But as far as any celebration was concerned? "Forget it," said the 23-year-old McKee. "I rode nine today, and I'm worn out."
Second of June drifted out at the furlong pole as he was making up ground on the winner for Patrick Valenzuela and just missed. Eddington, Eibar Coa aboard, fell well off the leaders early and lacked the rally required to threaten late. Eddington won the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) by 3 1/4 lengths in his last start March 5.
Crowned King and Limehouse, who broke in the air, recovered and then faded in the stretch, trailed.
Grand Reward paid $8.40, $4.60, and $2.20. Second of June paid $5.80 and $2.20, and Eddington paid $2.20.
The victory, worth $300,000, was the fourth in 19 lifetime starts for Grand Reward and pushed his bankroll to $530,981. He began his career in Ireland, where his best showing was a third-place finish in the Renaissance Stakes (Ire-III) as a 3-year-old last September. He was switched to the main track upon his arrival at Santa Anita in December and has two wins in five starts.