Saturday proved to be a good day for the past two winners of the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT). The 2004 winner Good Reward won the Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) on the Belmont Park turf and 2003 hero Sweet Return returned to Hollywood Park's lawn to capture the $350,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT).
A crafty front-end ride by Alex Solis made Sweet Return a multiple grade I winner. Left alone on the front end through creaking fractions in the 1 1/4-mile test (:26, :50 3/5, :1:14 3/5 and 1:38 2/5), the British-bred son of Elmaamul opened up a three-length lead on the far turn. Challenged in the stretch by even-money favorite Red Fort and jockey Corey Nakatani, Sweet Return, battled valiantly along the inside to post a head victory. He completed the 10-furlong distance in 2:01 1/5.
Solis said he didn't expect to be leading early.
"The first part, I felt like I was walking," he said. "When I got to the half-mile pole, I thought I had better go because he doesn't have that turn of foot like the other horses. I was able to open up and he was game down the stretch.
"(Red Fort) got his head in front, but this one is such a warrior he was pulling away at the finish. He was much the best today."
Sweet Return ended an eight-race losing streak for trainer Ron McAnally and owner John Brunetti's Red Oak Stable. The 5-year-old chestnut's last victory came in the Frank Kilroe Handicap (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita in March 2004. Sweet Return, winning for the first time in four starts in 2005, was coming off a fourth-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Turf Classic (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs May 7.
He claimed his third win in four starts at 10 furlongs, the same distance as the Hollywood Derby. In fact, the race was reminiscent of that effort when Juile Krone employed even slower front-running tactics to lull her rivals to sleep.
McAnally, who last won the Whittingham in 1984 with John Henry, said his hopes were bolstered by the slow opening half-mile.
"Top of the stretch I still had confidence,"he said, "but about the eighth pole I saw (Red Fort) coming and I thought, 'Well, I guess we'll see.' And he came up to him. He actually got up there head to head, but our horse came on again. He's a fighter like that."
The Irish-bred Red Fort was closer to the pace for jockey Corey Nakatani than he had been in his first two starts in the United States for trainer Neil Drysdale. Tucked in on the inside while patiently tracking the leaders in third or fourth throughout, the son of Green Desert angled out in mid-stretch and collared Sweet Return. But after inching in front, Red Fort could not hold off the resurgent Sweet Return.
Nakatani blamed the lack of pace.
"I was just hoping that Tyler Baze would go and put his horse (Deputy Lad) on the lead," he said. "He runs best up on the lead, but Tyler never put him there. I'm sitting there, trying to make the other horse work a little bit, but I had nowhere to go. The leader was just galloping.
"I was able to finally get to him and I did get by for a moment. But to make up that kind of ground off of that pace, well, my horse was laying his body down. The other horse just got everything his own way."
Vangelis, ridden by the returning Patrick Valenzuela who had been sidelined by a knee injury, was well beaten in third, 3 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up.
The hard-knocking Sweet Return improved his career line to 6-5-6 in 25 starts with earnings of $1,268,731. Sweet Return is from the Claude Monet mare Sweet Revival.
The third choice of the public in the field of nine, Sweet Return paid $10, $3.80 and $2.40, combining with the odds-on choice Red Fort ($2.80 and $2.20) for a $25 exacta. Vangelis was $2.20 to show.
Then came Deputy Lad, Stanley Park, Sarafan, Just Wonder, Continuously abd Pellegrino.