Argentine-bred Star Cross earned his first career graded stakes victory in Saturday's $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II), edging ahead of Nose The Trade in the late stages to win by a half-length at Santa Anita.
The San Pasqual was the first prep for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.
The 7-year-old chestnut, ridden by Victor Espinoza for Ernest Auerbach's E A Ranches and trainer Darrell Vienna, took a four-wide path into the stretch and looked as though he would not have enough time to catch Nose the Trade. The runner-up, trained by Bobby Frankel, had opened up a substantial advantage in the stretch for jockey Patrick Valenzuela after disposing of pacesetting Hot Market. But the son of Southern Halo kept coming to register an 8-1 surprise in a time of 1:42 1/5 in the 1 1/16-mile test for older horses.
"I saw my horse was determined, but there for a while, it didn't look like it was going to make much difference," Vienna said.
"He's had trouble making the turns and he did today, but he's starting to think about what he's doing a little more," Vienna said. "He's a good horse if he learns how to run and he's starting to learn."
Olmodavor, the 3-2 favorite in the field of seven, was third, 2 1/2 lengths behind Nose the Trade. Gift of the Eage finished fourth.
"I wanted to just sit back and take my time, let the speed go, and that's how it unfolded," said Espinoza, who rode three winners on the card. "He doesn't like to be in tight, but you can't fight this horse too much or he will get angry. So I left him alone the best I could and when he got to the outside and clear I let him go."
Star Cross was well back early racing off the rail after drifting out on the first turn while Hot Market blitzed to the lead while under pressure from Nose The Trade and Total Impact, setting fractions of :22 4/5, :45 4/5 and 1:09 3/5. Star Cross, in tight on the turn, swung three wide for the drive. But as they completed the final turn, Nose The Trade edged to the front and opened up on the field by at least two lengths down the stretch. He finished gamely, but could not hold off the winner.
Olmodavor took a wide path into the stretch while following Star Cross, but lacked the needed response in finishing a non-threatening third with Alex Solis in the saddle.
"He wasn't good enough today," said his trainer, Richard Mandella. "He didn't have any excuses."
In his last start, the Forty-Niner Handicap at Golden Gate Nov. 28, Star Cross won his first United States race after six losing efforts dating back to October 2002. He was group I-placed twice in his native Argentina. Overall, he improved to 8-1-4 in 23 lifetime starts while earning $90,000 for the victory. His career purse earnings increased to $248,299.
Star Cross paid $19.40, $7.60 and $3.40. Nose The Trade returned $5.20 and $3. Olmodavor's show was $2.40. The $2 exacta was worth $90.20.
Total Impact, the 2-1 second choice, was fifth, followed by Hot Market and Sharp Breeze.
Vienna said Star Cross would race next in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap.
In the Pick Six, bolstered by a two-day carryover of $536,394, two winning tickets were worth $760,861 each.