Victor Espinoza had a nice fallback when Cobalt Blue was withdrawn from Saturday's Kentucky Derby (gr. I), instead riding Molengao to a convincing 4 1/2-length win in the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Hollywood Park.
The Brazilian-bred Molengao established himself as a leading contender for the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) on June 30 with his come-from-behind victory as the 13-10 choice.
Molengao, a 6-year-old chestnut horse, relaxed down the backstretch of the 1 1/16-mile race, with Espinoza asking him nearing the three-eighths pole. He moved into contention on the outside at the quarter pole, collared front-runner Mambo Train at the top of the stretch and left the closers Porto Santo and Buzzards Bay behind in 1:42.86 under 118 pounds on Cushion Track.
"Everyone was packing together on the turn," said Espinoza. "When you have the best horse you just have to make your way around. The move he made was unbelievable. I had so much horse. I waited a little bit longer but then I didn't want to wait any longer, I just better go. He covers a lot of ground, he's such a big horse. His stride is about two for the others' one."
French-bred Porto Santo battled with second choice Buzzards Bay for second money through the stretch, getting the nod by a nose in a photo. Mambo Train hung on for fourth in the field of eight older horses. Wanna Runner, Bravo Maestro, Cimyla and Billy Allen trailed.
Molengao, trained by Paulo Lobo for T N T Stud, paid $4.60, $2.60 and $2.10. Porto Santo, ridden by Brice Blanc, returned $3.80 and $2.80. Buzzards Bay, Jose Valdvia Jr. aboard, paid $2.60.
Molengao, second to two-time defending Gold Cup champion Lava Man in the Santa Anita Handicap, won the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) two starts back in his 2007 debut. A winner of five of 15 starts overall, he banked $90,000 Saturday to increase his earnings to $588,477.
"He loves it here, since they put this track in this horse is only climbing, climbing, climbing (improving)," Lobo said of Hollywood Park's synthetic surface. "I was very confident. I had the Oaklawn Handicap as a possibility but I wanted him very fresh for this race. I think my main goal now is the Hollywood Gold Cup. He's proven that he runs well fresh."
Porto Santo had made his previous 13 starts on turf while Buzzards Bay -- the 2005 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) champion -- was making his first start since finishing fourth as the favorite in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) last June at Churchill Downs.
"He handled the dirt (Cushion Track) beautifully," Blanc said of Porto Santo. "There was a little bit of kickback on the first turn and when I entered the backside and he got a little aggressive with me. He kind of threw his head a little bit up. But otherwise he handled it beautifully and fought really hard for second."
Michael Baze rode three winners for the second consecutive day and leads Espinoza 15-13 in the jockeys' standings.