Robert Bone's undefeated Choctaw Nation earned his reservation for the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) with a powerful rally to mow down Pleasantly Perfect and capture the $250,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar Sunday.
Making his stakes debut for the seemingly invincible trainer Jeff Mullins, the 4-year-old Louis Quatorze gelding circled the field on the turn for home with Victor Espinoza in the saddle. He swept by Pleasantly Perfect, who had gained the lead from During, less than a furlong from home and dug in for a three-quarters of a length victory. The time was 1:42 1/5 for the 1 1/16-mile San Diego.
"I'm speechless right now," Mullins said. "Like I said all along, I know Pleasantly Perfect is probably the best horse in the country and Richard Mandella is a great, great trainer. But I've seen horses come from Dubai and they just don't fire in their first race back. That's what we were counting on. That's what we were all counting on. This is pretty special."
Mullins, however, said he wasn't sure if Choctaw Nation would run in the Pacific Classic, which is at 1 1/4 mile at Del Mar on Aug. 22.
"One thing about us we'll make sure the horse is right before we run him, and if he's right the Pacific Classic is where we'll be."
Mullins swept the graded stakes races at Del Mar this weekend, taking the San Clemente Handicap (gr. IIT) for 3-year-old fillies Saturday with Sweet Win.
Pleasantly Perfect carried top weight of 124 pounds Sunday, 10 more than Choctaw Nation.
The 6-year-old Pleasantly Perfect, making his first start since winning the $6 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) in March, was keen to duel with the pacesetters for most of the trip. Last year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) champion had won his last four starts, but lacked his usual punch in the lane for jockey Mike Smith, who replaced the injured Alex Solis.
Smith blamed himself.
"My horse ran a good race," he said. "I didn't ride a good one. He was fresh. So fresh. I tried to tuck him in behind horses to get him to rate there, but he was running up over horses' heels. You can't have that happening with a good horse like this, so I had to take him out and let him go up front.
"To be honest, I didn't do my job. It's my job to get it done and I didn't do that. This wasn't one of the best rides of my career."
It might not have mattered, anyway, as brilliantly as Chocktaw Nation finished up.
Chocktaw Nation won his fifth straight race. Bone and Mullins claimed him for $40,000 in his first start against maidens Feb. 29. His other three victories came in a starter allowance and two optional claiming allowance events, the last coming May 28.
As During, soon challenged by Pleasantly Perfect by Taste of Paradise on his outside, carved out the fractions, Choctaw Nation was sixth in the field of seven on the far turn. Choctaw Nation swung around the traffic, quickly passing his rivals until hooking up with Pleasantly Perfect. He won edging away at the end under strong handling from Espinoza. During held on to finish third with Corey Nakatani riding.
"I moved with him a little bit sooner than I normally would," said Espinoza, who won the San Diego last year with Taste of Paradise. "On this track you just don't know. The front runners sometimes get too much of an edge. I saw the speed horses going up front and I knew I had to go after them early.
"My horse is just so great to ride. He relaxes early and saves it for the stretch. He's a smart horse and you can do whatever you want him to do. When I pushed the button today, he gave me what I wanted. And he was finishing strong. The farther the better with this horse. He'll just keep on running."
Mandella took the loss in stride.
"He was too fresh. That's all. He was a little too anxious up there early. He made the lead and that's never been his game. But it'll set us up for the Classic."
Choctaw Nation earned $150,000 for the victory, bringing his lifetime bankroll to $241,800.
Bred in Kentucky by Loch Lea Farm Inc., Choctaw Nation is from the dam Melisma (by Well Decorated). He was purchased as a yearling for $35,000 at Keeneland.
The winner paid $14.60, $3.40 and $2.10, combining with 3-5 favorite Pleasantly Perfect ($3.20, $2.10) for a $27.60 exacta. During was $2.10 to show.