David and Holly Wilson's Early Pioneer posted the biggest win of his career when the 5-year-old gelding overtook 7-5 favorite General Challenge in the stretch to win the $1-million Sempra Energy Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) at Hollywood Park on Sunday.
As expected, Barry Schwartz' David took the early lead, and was two lengths in front going into the first turn of the 1 1/4-mile race, with Big Ten and General Challenge in pursuit. As the field rounded the second turn, General Challenge mounted his challenge to David and took the lead in the stretch. Early Pioneer, who had improved from sixth to third rounding the far turn, was ridden strongly on the outside by jockey Victor Espinoza in the stretch to overtake General Challenge and David. While General Challenge mounted a game comeback, the effort came up short as Early Pioneer won by a length. Early Pioneer, who gained millionaire status with the $600,000 winner's purse, completed the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.40. As the 24.50-1 outsider in the nine-horse field, Early Pioneer paid $51.00, $12.20, and $6.60. General Challenge, making his first start in three months, returned $3.40 and $3.00, and David was worth $8.20 to show. Out of Mind finished fourth, followed by Cat Thief, Blueprint, Chester House, Big Ten, and Pleasant Breeze.
Trained by Vladimir Cerin, Early Pioneer posted his ninth victory in his 31st career start in the Gold Cup. Previous to the Gold Cup, Early Pioneer had consecutive runner-up efforts, finishing second to Out Of Mind in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) and second to Big Ten in the Californian (gr. II). Those two races were preceded by a victory over David and General Challenge, at 27-1 odds, in the San Bernardino Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita on April 9. A son of Rahy, Early Pioneer was bred in Kentucky by Mr. and Mrs. John C. Mabee, who bred and race General Challenge. The Gold Cup winner was claimed from the Mabees for $62,500 in October 1998.
Espinoza, who had dyed his hair yellow-gold for the Gold Cup, said, "This was great. I was really excited. I think I'll keep the hair gold until Del Mar, then I'll wait until next year's Gold Cup to dye it again." Trainer Cerin said Early Pioneer will likely contest the Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar in his next start and noted that he is eligible to the Breeders' Cup.
With his second-place finish, General Challenge moved into a tie with Golden Missile for leadership of the "NTRA Champions on Fox" series. Both horses have 22 points in the series, which concludes with the $750,000 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga on Aug. 6. With 14 points, Early Pioneer is fifth in the points standing for the series, which carries a $100,000 bonus for the series champion and additional bonus money for the first three Whitney finishers.
"I thought he ran a huge race, and the winner ran a good race," trainer Bob Baffert said of General Challenge's effort after a three-month layoff. Baffert said General Challenge will also go to the Pacific Classic. (Chart, Equibase