It wasn't planned, but a change in race tactics paid off in a 14-1 surprise when Habaneros broke on top in his stakes debut and repelled all challengers in the stretch to win the 1 1/2-mile Carleton F. Burke Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Oak Tree's Santa Anita meet Saturday.
With noted gated rider David Flores aboard for trainer Thomas Ray Bell Jr., Habaneros, a 5-year-old Tabasco Cat gelding, battled between horses early to establish command, slowing things to a crawl. He shook off Hatif, Gallant and Leprechaun Kid on the final turn and stole away to a two-length advantage in the stretch before holding on gamely for a three-quarters of a length decision. The final time for the 12 furlongs on firm going was 2:26 4/5.
"He was nice all the way, really in control," Flores said. "I didn't plan to be on the lead, not at all. He broke good, but I was expecting there to be more speed, but there wasn't. Everybody took a hold, and after being on the lead for the first quarter of a mile I just sat on him and relaxed."
Brazillian-bred Pellegrino (14-1) progressed evenly along the rail for Gary Stevens, squeezing through on the inside late to get up for second by a neck over English-bred Gallant (29-1) and Martin Pedroza.
Second choice Puerto Banus was nosed out for third while 13-10 favorite Continuously beat just one in the eight-horse field. Ridden by Corey Nakatani, Continuously ranged up five wide on the home turn and appeared poised to take a shot at the leaders, but he did not produce his usual kick.
"The turf was just too hard for him, that's all," said Nakatani.
Habaneros' splits were :25 1/5, :49 1/5, 1:13 4/5,1:38 3/5 and 2:02 3/5.
The victory was the fourth in 11 lifetime starts for Habaneros, who was bred in Kentucky by Louis Roussel. He was produced from the dam Innocently Astray (by Gone West
). He earned $60,000 for owner John C. Bell of Burbank, the trainer's uncle, and now has career winnings of $174,400.
Habaneros had broken last or nearly last in his last four starts, making his early prominence a surprise, even in what appeared to be a paceless event.
"I told David (Flores) not to change strategy too much but I said, 'You're the pilot, you know the horse, just ride him as the race shapes up," trainer Bell said. "He's had speed before. I think Corey (Nakatani) almost won a race wire to wire here a couple of years ago (Oct. 2, 2002) as I recall. But he is versatile in that regard so I was just happy that I wasn't too specific in my instructions. Because when you have a jock like that, a talented rider, you can't be too specific. When you've got a guy like that who knows pace, knows the horse, you just leave it to him."
Habaneros paid $30.20, $13.20 and $8.20. Pellegrino ($11.40, $7.80) completed a $353.20 exacta and Gallant ($11.20) rounded out a $1 trifecta of $2,064.70.
Hatif finished fifth, followed by Special Matter, Continuously and Leprechaun Kid.
Earlier, Seattles Best Joe won a stretch duel with even-money favorite Chips Are Down to take the six-furlong Sunny Slope Stakes for 2-year-olds.
Seattles Best Joe, ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Howard Belvoir, and Chips Are Down, ridden by Rene Douglas for Bob Baffert, both took the final turn wide, shooting past the rest of field and battling down the stretch. Seattles Best Joe prevailed by a length in 1:09 4/5.
The winner carried 118 and paid $10, $4.20 and $3.20. Chips Are Down paid $3 and $2.60. Senor Fango, ridden by Gary Stevens, was 10 lengths back in third and paid $4. Morning line favorite Seize the Day scratched.