The marathon distance proved no problem for favored Meteor Storm, who kicked away in the stretch and held on for 1 1/2-length victory over Rhythm Mad in the $250,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT), closing the curtain on the 2004 Santa Anita season.
Jose Valdivia Jr. guided the 5-year-old English bred to victory for trainer Wally Dollase and owners Michael Jarvis, Gary Margolis and Ken Smole, et al.
Santa Anita ended its season on an improved note. Attendance on-track for Capistrano day jumped to 20,774 after just 15,225 attended last year. Total handle was also higher, $13,887290 as compared to $10,750,088 a year ago.
"He almost bit my (right) thumb off this morning, believe it or not," Dollase said of the winner. "That was a good omen. This guy was ready. When he's doing those kind of things, he's ready."
Meteor Storm, who was coming off a thrilling win in the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita on March 20, had never tried the grueling Capistrano distance of about 1 3/4 miles.
But after stalking the pacesetters All the Boys and Gigli out of the final turn, the bay son of Bigstone could wait no longer, kicking away to a three-length lead in the stretch and held clear under urging from Valdivia. Runaway Dancer was third, a length behind Rhythm Mad. The final time was 2:45 4/5.
"He was able to put me in a good forward spot and then just relax," Valdivia said. "I was loving my position. He was saving himself and so was I. If I called on him, I wanted him to be able to fight off all challengers. For a horse to go a mile and a half and then kick on like that the last quarter of a mile is just very impressive."
Valdivia said he was concerned about saving enough to hold off Rhythm Mad in the stretch.
"I started climbing on top of him, but then said 'you know what, let me just blow right by them' because when you go this far horses are not going to show that kind of turn of foot. They pushed me a little bit there, but I got to sit on him one more time. I was more than anything afraid of (Rhythm Mad). I knew he would be finishing hard. And I thought, if I've got anything to my advantage it's my horse's turn of foot, and I'm going to use it to my advantage. What a move he made."
Rhythm Mad, ridden by Alex Solis, saved ground well off the pace, but lost some momentum when forced to steady off heals while rallying steadily in the stretch.
"I could have run a better race, let's put it that way," Solis said. "I could have let him go a little early at the half-mile pole but I wanted to save some for the end and I left him too much to do."
Runaway Dancer was also reserved off the pace most of the way while saving ground, but was able to pick his way along the inside to get third.
"He ran great, I just left him too much to do," jockey Mike Smith said. "I should have let him be up closer."
All the Boys, under pressure from Gigli most of the way, carved out fractions of :49 4/5, 1:39 1/5, 2:03 4/5 and 2:28 1/5 before they both gave away.
Meteor Storm, who ran in the United States for the first time in March 2003 after beginning his career in France, has found a home on the Santa Anita turf, where he's won three of six starts with two thirds with earnings of $330,720. He's won four of his eight U.S. tries.
Overall, he's 5-3-2 in 13 career outings with earnings of $405,884 after pocketing Sunday's top prize of $150,000.
"The horse has got a great mind," Dollase said. "That's what separates him from the other ones. He's got a great mind, great attitude."
Special Matter was fourth, followed by Ringaskiddy, White Buck Gigli, Gene de Campeao and All the Boys.
Meteor Storm paid $7.60, $3.80 and $2.40. Rhythm Mad returned $5 and $3.20. Runaway Dancer was $2.80 to show. The exacta was worth $28.20 for a $2 wager.