Jerome Bettis, take a seat. Make way for an even bigger bus.
As if the Strub outcome didn't muddle the Big 'Cap picture enough, Guided Tour, the horse who's never met a track he didn't like, left his Louisiana digs and promptly beat up a gateful of overachievers in the $300,000 San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) the following afternoon.
For the past year, Guided Tour has made a habit of zigzagging around the U.S. and doing damage at pretty much every spot he's hit. Save for a flop in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), the 5-year-old gelding has been remarkably consistent--and improving by leaps and bounds.
The son of Hansel ended his diverse campaign last year by knocking off both Valhol and Concerned Minister at Fair Grounds. Trainer Niall O'Callaghan subsequently gave a long look at the Donn Handicap (gr. I), made an about face, and instead plopped Guided Tour right into the thick of the nine-furlong San Antonio. Naturally, Guided Tour acted like he'd been a beach bum all his life.
As the San Antonio field sorted itself into place, jockey Larry Melancon dropped Guided Tour to the fence, racing amongst a knot tracking Deputy Flag. Close by, Gary Stevens had a sweet spot occupied on Freedom Crest, but as Deputy Flag moved on through three-quarters in 1:10.80, the even-money favorite had long thrown in the towel.
"Last time when I turned into the backside, he just started dragging me," said Stevens, referring to last month's San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II). "Today, he didn't want anything to do with it. There was just nothing there."
It was Guided Tour, rather, who went after Deputy Flag on the turn. Lethal Instrument, a son of Gulch trained by John Shirreffs, showed up with a head full of steam as well, but Guided Tour repelled the challenge, beating Lethal Instrument by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:48.26. Moonlight Charger, a 66-1 outsider, was third, while Freedom Crest was a flat last.
Guided Tour has now earned $760,033 for owner Morton Fink. So far, he's won at seven different tracks.
"He's amazing," Melancon said. "We call him 'The Bus.' Everybody gets on that horse. He's just a big ol' ham."
Where the Bus stops next, however, won't be Arcadia. O'Callaghan said the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) on March 4 has been the target all along, leaving local handicappers with a haywire gauge as the 64th Big 'Cap looms around the corner.
Before the Strub, most dubbed the Big 'Cap a foregone conclusion. Now, a stunning defeat has left the reigning Horse of the Year on a quest for redemption, and with Guided Tour's dismantling of the West Coast handicap division, horses once considered pretenders may just scream "Carpe Diem!" and go chasing a million-dollar mirage.
Why not? At this point, it's anybody's ballgame. Flying High
The Strub card also featured the $150,000 San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), where Early Flyer turned the tables on undefeated Lasersport.
The sons of Gilded Time first met in the San Miguel Stakes (gr. III) three weeks earlier. On that day, Lasersport rolled to an easy lead and never looked back, kicking clear turning for home to win with ease. Early Flyer chased him the entire trip, so jockey Chris McCarron and trainer Ron McAnally went to modifying tactics for the seven-furlong San Vicente. Lasersport, as expected, got out early, but newcomer D'wildcat stayed close long enough to push him through a :44.93 opening half.
Early Flyer, meanwhile, had responded to McCarron's every signal from the start, and after skirting the rail on the curve, he moved in on Lasersport with a furlong to run. It was a thriller to the very end, as the chestnuts broke the tape just a neck apart. The decision went to Early Flyer, who got the distance in 1:21.51. D'wildcat, a son of Forest Wildcat who had needed just 1:08 and change to break his maiden, held onto third, two lengths behind Lasersport.
Early Flyer was bred by owner Verne Winchell.