Brazilian-bred Ace Blue, ridden by David Flores, battled the pacesetter Ender's Shadow and Rene Douglas all the way through a sensational stretch drive, emerging with a head victory in the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) Saturday at Hollywood Park.
Borrego, the 17-10 choice in the field of seven, was a neck farther back in third in the opening race of the Hollywood Park three-race series for handicap horses that concludes with the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) on July 9. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile main track event was 1:41 2/5.
Ender's Shadow and Ace Blue, who won his third straight race in the LeRoy, ran one-two all the way around through solid fractions of :23 4/5, :47 1/5, and 1:10 4/5. In the stretch, Ace Blue, on the outside, edged to the lead, but Ender's Shadow would not give way as Borrego and Garrett Gomez bore down on the outside.
Ace Blue, a 5-year-old son of Coax Me Clyde making his United States stakes debut for trainer Paulo Lobo and Rio de Janeiro owner Luis Filepe of Eternamente Rio Stud, proved best under 114 pounds, five less than Borrego, the high weight.
"He likes to battle, and I was able to sit right off the pace," Flores said. "He quickened just perfect when I asked him to. I didn't want (Ender's Shadow) to get too confident, so I kind of put on pressure just when I needed to. I got him a head in front, he stayed there, and he was fighting all the way to the end.
"He's got confidence. I wouldn't be surprised if you see him beat some of the top older horses. He keeps developing with each race, and is very professional."
Ace Blue has won seven of 14 races lifetime, including three of five in the U.S. since arriving from his native Brazil in December. He captured an allowance/claiming event by two lengths in his last start April 9. The $90,000 winning share increased Ace Blue's earnings to $162,384.
The third choice, he paid $9.80, $6.40, and $3.40.
"Since he came here, he's been improving step by step," Lobo said. "He won an impressive race over at Santa Anita, then I gave him two works between the races, and the last work was awesome."
Lobo said the Californian (gr. II), at 1 1/8 miles next month, would likely be next for Ace Blue.
The hard-luck runner-up, Ender's Shadow, returned $9.60 and $3.80, while losing his eighth straight.
"He ran an absolutely amazing race," Douglas said of the runner-up. "A little horse like him, he fought back the whole way. He gave it his all."
Borrego, who was coming off a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) more than two months ago, was $2.60 to show.
"In all honesty, I was real happy with the race," Gomez said of Borrego. "We missed a couple of races with him, and a mile-and-a-sixteenth isn't his distance. But he put me in the race, and he grinded. He's a mile-and-a-quarter horse. I wasn't able to quicken when the other two quickened, and that's what beat me. But right at the wire, I was getting to them again."
Anziyan Royalty, El Don, Outta Here, and Native Hawk rounded out the order. American Liberty was scratched.