Irish-bred Red Rioja slipped through a hole along the inside and edged away in the late stages to tally a one-length victory in Saturday's $100,000 Brown Bess Handicap (gr. IIIT) on the soft Golden Gate Fields turf course.
Sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the field of 11, jockey Eric Saint-Martin guided the 5-year-old King's Theatre mare to victory in a time of 1:46 for the 1 1/16-mile test on soft going. Hooked On Niners was second, 1 1/4 lengths in front of A B Noodle. Red Rioja and Hooked On Niners carried co-top weight of 117 pounds, but all starters in the field were within two pounds of that.
Red Rioja won for the second time in four United States starts for trainer Ben Cecil and owner/breeder Dr. Karen Sanderson. It was Red Rioja's first graded stakes victory. She was previously placed against group II stakes competition in Great Britain and had a group III win in Ireland, the Park Stakes, as a 2-year-old in 2001.
Unhurried early as Just Bill Me carved out early fractions of :23 2/5, :48 1/5 and 1:12 4/5, Saint-Martin brought Red Rioja into range on the final turn, angling between horses and rallying into the stretch. Caught in traffic, however, Saint-Martin had to wait for an opening. He found room on the inside of a tiring Hippogator, slipped through to challenge A B Noodle in mid-stretch and slowly pulled away.
"I just wanted to let her settle and get into the race," said Saint-Martin. "It took about a half mile but then she got comfortable and I was able to rate her well. When she found daylight in upper stretch she really responded. I just wanted her to stay out of trouble and get a clear trip. I knew she had the best speed numbers."
Hooked on Niners rallied willingly for jockey Russell Baze in the final furlong after traveling four wide into the stretch, but could not outfinish the winner. A B Noodle, with Roberto Gonzalez in the irons, stalked the early leaders, responded to gain the lead in the stretch and held a 2 1/2-length advantage, but could not hold off the two closers.
"She ran her race, she just couldn't hold off the winner," said Russell Baze, who rode Hooked On Niners. "I was hoping that sucker (Red Rioja) wouldn't get through (on the inside). That horse had too much of a punch the last sixteenth (of a mile)."
"She relaxed for me when I took her off the leaders and I still had a lot of horse at the top of the lane," said Gonzalez of A B Noodle. "She never quit but they blew by us at the end. We just got outrun."
Red Rioja had not started since posting a rallying second in an allowance race to Garden in the Rain at Santa Anita on Oct. 15. Prior to that, she was a creditable fifth in the Sept. 28 Yellow Ribbon (gr. I), also at Santa Anita, and had won at optional allowance/claiming event at Del Mar. In England, she had faced many of the top 3-year-old fillies during 2002, including Islington, Margarula, Kazzia and Gossamer while conditioned by Paul D'Arcy.
She earned $55,000 for the victory, her fourth in 15 lifetime starts. She has banked $223,980.
Red Rioja paid $4.40, $3 and $2.40. Hooked On Niners returned $4.40 and $3.20. A B Noodle's show was $3.40. The $2 exacta was worth $21.40.
Drew Away was fourth, followed by Hippogator, Abbey Bridge, Frisco Belle, Ilha Grande, Lady's Mantle, Keys to the Heart and Just Bill Me.