In spite of skipping the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), undefeated Declan's Moon made an emphatic statement for 2-year-old honors in 2004 with a convincing victory over grade I winners Wilko and Proud Accolade in Saturday's $449,500 Hollywood Futurity (gr. I).
"I'm over the moon," part owner Samantha Siegel said afterward.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza, the 2-year-old Maryland-bred Malibu Moon
gelding won under a steady hand ride for the final sixteenth of a mile, defeating longshot Giacomo and Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) hero Wilko by a length. The final time for the1 1/16-mile Futurity was 1:41 3/5.
Winning trainer Ron Ellis said, "I think that should eliminate all doubt (for the Eclipse Award). No doubt in my mind, that's for sure. We've done enough, and how he treated this field here today ... I think this is a pretty representative field from around the country."
Roving Boy, in 1982, is the only previous Futurity winner to win the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old.
"I expected him to be a later developer, and I just wanted to get some experience into him as a 2-year-old," Ellis explained. "But he's really stepped up for the plate and showed that he's ready for the big leagues.
"He looked like he was just playing around."
Giacomo rallied late for Mike Smith to nip a weakening Wilko for second. Southern Africa took fourth as Proud Accolade, the Champagne (gr. I) winner, faded out of contention to finish fifth in the seven-horse field.
Declan's Moon, the 6-5 favorite, is now perfect in four career starts, winning his third consecutive graded stakes and his first grade I. His connections, Jay Em Ess Stable and Ellis, opted not to go to the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park after winning a grueling stretch battle over Roman Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) in September. Instead, the dark bay stayed home, winning the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) last month.
"When we skipped the Breeders' Cup, our whole plan was pointing toward the Derby, and what's the best way to get there," Ellis said. "We decided on these two races to finish off the year and then give him just a little bit of a breather, then go into next year."
Declan's Moon never got a break Saturday. He was keen to go out of the gate but eventually settled for second as Bushwacker set the early pace (:23 2/5, :46) on the extreme outside. Declan's Moon fought to get the lead while racing between horses after going six furlongs in 1:10, engaging with Wilko and Corey Nakatani, who challenged along the inside on the far turn. Espinoza gave his mount a couple of cracks with his right hand and by mid-stretch, Declan's Moon was in control. Giacomo moved a little too late to make an impact on the winner.
"He broke well, but I didn't want to go to the lead," Espinoza said. "But at the three-eighths, I had to go because (Wilko) put some pressure on him from the inside. After that, he was putting his ears up and down, and I had to get after him a couple of times to get his attention.
"It was definitely easier than it might have looked. This horse always runs easy and he's improving. He deserves to be 2-year-old champion."
Nakatani claimed Wilko was bounced off the fence when he attempted to advance along the inside coming off the final turn.
"I'm not a happy guy right now," he said after he complained to stewards. "It cost me second. The winner ran a good race, but I thought that I had him. I come up inside of him, and (Espinoza) pulled the horse's head in and bounced me off the fence. You're not supposed to do that stuff. But the stewards didn't see it that way.
"I was very impressed with my horse," Nakatani added. "He ran a great race. The winner ran just a little bit better. But my horse has had a long year, and it showed a little bit."
The victory, worth $269,700 to his connections, more than doubled Declan's Moon's earnings for 2004, which stand at $509,100.
Bushwacker was pulled up on the turn for home and eased in the stretch.
Brice Ridgely bred Declan's Moon, who is from the Norquestor mare Vee Vee Star and was purchased for $125,00 at the 2003 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic September yearling sale.
He paid $4.40, $3 and $2.40. Giacomo returned $7.60 and $3.60, completing a $39.60 exacta. Wilko's show was $2.80 for a $144.40 trifecta.
"I'm simply ecstatic with the way he ran," Smith said of Giacomo. "And from every indication of what he has shown me, he will continue to step forward. So we're just really excited."
"I don't really have an excuse," said John Velazquez, who flew in to ride Proud Accolade for trainer Todd Pletcher. "I was where I wanted to be. I was right next to the winner the whole time. He just didn't respond. He didn't fire the way I thought he would."