Saint Stephen became the latest to make a successful switch from the turf to Hollywood Park's Cushion Track, taking advantage of a quick pace to register a late-running score in the $100,000 Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) Sunday.
Ridden by Garrett Gomez for trainer Christophe Clement, Saint Stephen raced in fourth for most of the 1 1/8-mile journey, well off pacesetters Flamethrowintexan and 8-5 favorite Ball Four.
As the shippers got into their own match race, with Flamethrowintexan setting pressured fractions of :23, :46 2/5 and 1:10 4/5 and leading the rest of the field by about 10 lengths, Gomez moved Saint Stephen up on the leaders on the far turn. They struck the lead while three wide with a mid-stretch surge.
Southern Africa, ridden by Jon Court, gave an encouraging effort through the final stages but came up a half-length short of the winner.
"Those two (Flamethrowintexan and Ball Four) were kind of zig-zagging up front," Gomez noted. "They were playing and hedging with each other, so I wasn't necessarily too worried about them.
"I took a peak around the five-sixteenths pole (to see) exactly how much ground I had to make up on them, and I still felt real confident. There was one horse behind me I was concerned about (Southern Africa) who was making his run. But my horse ran a really good race."
"Everything set up real good, we just couldn't outrun Christopher Clement's horse," said Court of the runner-up. "I ran right up to the heels of Garrett, but the winner was just too much."
Brazilian-bred Molengao, ridden by Victor Espinoza, closed in for third over Flamethrowintexan, 3 1/4 lengths behind Southern Africa.
The final time was 1:48 3/5.
Gomez won for the fourth time on the Sunday program and swept the Inglewood track's graded stakes this weekend after capturing the Hollywood Turf Cup Handicap (gr. IT) on Saturday aboard Boboman.
Saint Stephen, a full brother to the champion filly Ashado, made 20 of his previous 22 lifetime starts on the grass and had not been postward since April 29, when the 6-year-old Saint Ballado horse registered a 3 1/2-length victory in the one-mile Henry Clark on the Pimlico turf.
Owned by New Yorkers Susan and Charles Harris and the estate of Peter Karches, Saint Stephen was working in consistently strong fashion on the Hollywood Cushion Track for Clement.
The bay earned his first graded stakes win and his seventh victory overall while banking $300,464.
"He got sick (at Pimlico) with a virus or something," said Arnaud Delacour, assistant to Clement.
"We had to give him a little time. He also does a lot in the mornings, so he makes himself ready. The five months weren't such an issue because he's very generous training, he loves to train."
Aaron and Marie Jones bred Saint Stephen, who is out of the Mari's Book mare Goulash, in Kentucky.
Third choice in the field of six, he paid $9.60, $5.20, and $3.80.
Southern Africa, a closing fifth in Churchill Downs' one-mile Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) Nov. 4, returned $7 and $3.60.
Molengao, making his first start since a runner-up finish in the Sunset Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) on the Hollywood Park grass in July, was $3.20 to show.
It was three parts of a length to Flamethrowintexan, followed by Ball Four and Don Incauto. A pair of Richard Mandella trainees, Boboman and Spellbinder, scratched.