Favored Willow O Wisp broke on top and was never headed while cruising to a 1 1/4-length victory over Artiste Royal under jockey Victor Espinoza in Saturday's $100,000 Inglewood Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hollywood Park.
Willow O Wisp set an easy pace and accelerated every time he encountered a challenge to win for the third time in four starts at Hollywood Park. The 4-year-old Misnomer gelding covered 1 1/16 miles over the Lakeside Turf Course in 1:39 – three fifths of second off the track record set by Leroidesanimaux in the 2004 Inglewood – while paying $5, $3.80, and $2.80. Artiste Royal surged in the final strides to get second by a nose, returning $10.40 and $5. The show payoff on Brazilian New Export, making his first start for trainer Bobby Frankel, was $4.40.
"I just put him in the front and didn't look back," Espinoza said of the Florida-bred that he rode for the first time. "That's the way he likes to run. I opened him up two or three lengths on the lead and tried not to give him much of a break, because he's the type of horse that, if you give him a break, he won't go. So I had to keep on him. At the three-eighths pole, I thought he was kinda trying to slow down, so that's where I really started riding him. I had to ride him hard."
Fractions for the race were :23 4/5, :47 and 1:10 1/5. There was little change in the order as the seven competitors negotiated for position behind the front-runner.
Willow O Wisp, who won an allowance race and the Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hollywood last summer prior to a victory in the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT), won for the first time in three 2006 starts. Owned by Robert Alexander, the bay appears to have overcome a trip last December to the Hong Kong Cup (HK-I), where he finished ninth.
"He really was rounding into form, and I expected him to run big; and he did not disappoint," trainer Vladimir Cerin said. "The trip (overseas) took a lot of starts out of him. He's not the most mentally stable individual, and he likes to live in his own house, be around his own racetrack, and run. He's not much of a shipper.
"He gained quite a bit of weight, even just in the last two weeks," Cerin added. "He's much stronger. I told Victor, 'You're gonna have to ride him hard, and the more you ask him the more he will give you.' And he said he started asking him at the three-eighths pole, and he thought he might have a dead horse. But every time he asked him, he'd give him a little more. I'm very pleased with both of them."
Willow O Wisp, whose lone setback at Hollywood came when he was beaten a head by Osidy in the 2005 Will Rogers (gr. IIIT), improved his record to six-for-16 with the victory. The winner's share of $60,000 raised his earnings to $569,240.
Red Fort, the 2-1 second choice, finished a head behind New Export, followed by Narrative, Senor Swinger, and Sarafan. Quasimodo scratched.