Salute the Sarge, named for trainer Nick Hines, takes a three-race win streak into the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) on the final day of the seaside track's meeting Sept. 5. Chances are the Forest Wildcat colt will be facing a more difficult field than he did in the Best Pal, which was reduced to four horses. One scratch, Slam Slew, was expected to be favored until withdrawn due to mucus in his lungs by trainer Richard Mandella. Leonides, the other withdrawal, lost to Salute the Sarge by a nose in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III) July 4.
That's not to take anything away from the effort of Salute the Sarge, who edged away under slight urging in the final strides for a one-length win over the California-bred Georgie Boy, who broke his maiden on the Del Mar Polytrack with a three-length triumph in the Cal Graduation Stakes July 25.
"This is kind of an emotional moment," said Hines, a Southern California trainer and TVG analyst who was in the winner's circle with his close friend, winning conditioner Eric Guillot, and members of the ownership group, Michael Moreno's Southern Equine Stable. "For these guys to name a horse after me -- and this horse -- I'm at a loss for words."
Under leading rider Michael Baze, Salute the Sarge broke inward from the inside stall and tracked Georgie Boy and Mike Smith, who set a solid pace for the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal. When he got room approaching the turn, Baze shifted Salute the Sarge off the rail to the outside of Georgie Boy, as Mix and Corey Nakatani took over the pace pressing duties on the inside. Early fractions were :23 3/5 and :47 4/5.
Salute the Sarge challenged Georgie Boy on the outside coming off the turn as Mix fell back. Salute the Sarge got the lead under moderate urging. As Salute the Sarge edged away mid-stretch, Smith, on the inside, went to the whip on Georgie Boy, who responded to draw close again. But the Tribal Rule gelding could not match strides approaching the wire when Salute the Sarge was asked for a bit more by Baze. The final time was 1:19 2/5.
"He doesn't like it up front, so the race came up right for us," Baze said of the winning trip. "I just let him do his thing and then when the time came he went. No issues with distance with this guy. The farther the better. He loves a target. He's a nice colt getting better."
"He's never going to be the kind of horse to blow horses down, but that's okay," said Guillot after collecting his first Del Mar stakes win. He acknowledged that the colt would try the Futurity next if he checks out well.
But he said he also has his eyes on the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) later. "I told our group that he needed to beat these to have a chance later. I'm really looking forward to Monmouth."
Sky Cape, ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., finished third, five lengths behind Georgie Boy. Mix trailed.
Salute the Sarge has won all three of his starts but has not been favored in any of them. Sent off as the second choice in the Best Pal, the bay colt paid $4.60 and $2.40. Georgie Boy, trained by Kathy Walsh, returned $2.20. There was no show wagering.
"(Salute the Sarge) got the jump on him, but he came back at him," Smith said of Georgie Boy. "He'll be all right on down the road. Hopefully we'll get those blinkers off him and get him to settle down some."
The winner earned $90,000 to nearly double his career total to $186,540. Out of the Silver Ghost mare Dixie Ghost, Salute the Sarge was bred in Kentucky by Gulf Coast Farms and sold for $300,000 at Barretts in March.