Eastern Sand, the 1-2 favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Silky Sullivan Handicap (gr. IIIT) for 3-year-olds, needed every step of the 1 1/8-mile distance, getting to the wire first in his final lunge to defeat Mr. Splash by a head at Golden Gate Fields.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Jeff Mullins, the Southern California shipper prompted the pacesetter Mr. Splash all the way, challenging in the stretch on the outside. Just when it looked like he wouldn't get there, Eastern Sand dug deeper to find a little extra close to home, pulling out the victory in the final stride. The time was 1:43 on a firm course.
"He's kind of one-paced so usually you want some speed in front of you," said Mullins. "He's just a big, long-striding horse. You can't break his stride. If he ever has to steady at some point, he's doomed."
Eastern Sand was on the losing end of a similar finish in his last race, a second-place showing by a nose behind Aragorn in the Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Oct. 15. He won his first stakes race in the Silky Sullivan while capturing his second victory in nine starts in 2005. He had placed in five stakes races before Saturday.
"It was not that easy," said Espinoza, who was also aboard Eastern Sand in the Oak Tree Derby. "He doesn't win by much. He likes to fight. He's not the type of horse that can open up and win by a lot. Sometimes we miscalculate the wire but not today."
The win was worth $55,000 to owners Michael Bello, Jack Mandato, and Russell Sarno. The Florida-bred gelded son of Line In the Sand-Jamie O Eight (by Far Out East) improved to 4-5-1 in 14 starts career-wise with earnings of $266,208.
The Farnsworth Farm-bred chestnut paid $3, $2.20, and $2.10.
Breaking from the inside post, Mr. Splash ($3, $2.10), the second choice in the field of six at odds of 7-2, went to the front right from the outset and established a middling pace of :24 2/5, :49 1/5 and 1:14 4/5 under rating by Chance Rollins. He gave up ground to the winner, who was on his flanks the entire journey, only grudgingly.
"There wasn't much pace and I wanted to be up close," said Espinoza. "It set up good. I was able to track one horse. He's improving. In this race and in his last race he ran big."
Eager Pharisien ($2.10), ridden by Russell Baze, finished evenly to take third, two lengths behind, after looming as a serious threat in upper stretch.
Aizarunner, In Excelsis, and Funny Flyer trailed.