Garrett Gomez, who won the Sham (gr. III) earlier aboard Ravel, guided Arson Squad to victory for trainer Bruce Headley, the veteran conditioner who won his first Strub.
The stalking Arson Squad, who ran a closing fourth in the second leg of the Strub series, the San Fernando Breeders' Cup (gr. II) when ridden for the first time by Gomez three weeks ago, was much closer to the pace Saturday. Coming off the far turn in fifth, Arson Squad swept past the retreating pacesetter Objective and darted to the inside, where he finished best to defeat Spring At Last in a 1 1/8-mile time of 1:48 3/5. The runner-up, ridden by Corey Nakatani, nosed Brother Derek and Alex Solis for second, with favored Midnight Lute finishing fourth a half-length back on the far outside.
Objective, off at 45-1 with Jorge Chavez aboard, set the early fractions -- :23, :47 and 1:10 3/5 -- before tiring coming off the turn. Spring At Last, always close to the front-runner, took over in upper stretch and fought Brother Derek to the wire. Midnight Lute loomed up on the far outside under Victor Espinoza but could not get past the leaders. Arson Squad had the dream spot for Gomez and surged to the front near the sixteenth pole.
Winner of the Swaps (gr. II) at Hollywood Park last summer, Arson Squad, a Brahms gelding, is being pointed to the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 3, Headley said.
The lightly raced Arson Squad won for the fifth time in 11 starts, earning $180,000 for Mace and Samantha Siegel, to increase his career bankroll to $564,450. He finished 1 1/4 lengths behind the Strub trio of Awesome Gem, Midnight Lute and Brother Derek in the San Fernando, and was off the board in the first race of the series, the Malibu (gr. I), which was won by Latent Heat. Arson Squad won for the fourth time in seven starts at Santa Anita and is unbeaten in two starts at nine furlongs.
“This is a race I always wanted to win because of the Strub family, which founded Santa Anita," Headley said. "This is where I got all my education and it’s really an honor to win this race. Good racing luck was the difference today. The first time (Malibu) he was slaughtered (at the start), the second time (San Fernando) he fell back and was trapped. This time he had a real clean trip and got the job done. We’ve been pointing to this race, of course, and if he ran like he did today, then (the Santa Anita Handicap) was right on the agenda."
Sent off as the third choice in the field of six, Arson Squad paid $8.80, $5 and $3.40. Spring At Last, racing with blinkers for the first time for trainer Doug O'Neill, returned $8.60 and $4.40 while part of a $70.60 exacta. Brother Derek, the second choice at 2-1, lost his eighth consecutive race since taking last spring's Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), paying $3 to show.
Awesome Gem and Objective trailed Midnight Lute. Fairbanks scratched.
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