Under showery skies in Arcadia, the Irish-bred Heatseeker was a dozen lengths behind the loose-on-the-lead Monterey Jazz heading into the final turn of the 1 1/4-mile Southern California classic. Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, the 5-year-old Giant's Causeway horse powered home impressively on Santa Anita's renovated synthetic track to get the lead mid-stretch, then held off a determined charge from Go Between to register a three-quarters of a length victory. The final time was a solid 2:00.42.
Heatseeker, who went off at odds of 7-1, served notice that he was sitting on a big race with an eye-catching second for Bejarano in the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) Feb. 9 when he closed from sixth to lose by a head to Well Armed in the final major prep for the Big 'Cap. The extra furlong was just what Heatseeker needed, even though it was his first try at the 10-furlong distance.
The 61-year-old Hollendorfer, who is running a 30-horse string in Southern California for the first time, may not want to leave any time soon. He has been winning at a 20% clip during the Santa Anita meet. In December at Hollywood Park, he became just the fourth trainer to win 5,000 races.
“It’s a nice feeling to win this race and I hope it’s the start of big things for this horse," said Hollendorfer, unable to suppress a smile after his second win in a $1 million race.
"I don’t have a firm plan (as to what’s next), but we’ll be hoping to look for bigger things now. There are plenty of races left this year. There are a lot of places to run, a lot of things to prove. The (Breeders’ Cup Classic) would be a long-range goal. It’s a big thrill to win this race. We’ve won some big races, but this is a real big one; I’m very proud of it.”
Rafael Bejarano pounded his chest twice and flashed a “V” for victory sign as he guided Heatseeker into the winner’s circle for Hollendorfer.
William de Burgh owns the winner, who is out of the Defensive Play mare Rusty Back. De Burgh transferred Heatseeker to Hollendorfer last fall and they have won three of six starts with the chestnut horse since.
Heatseeker could not have have gotten a better trip in the 14-horse Big 'Cap. Bejarano guided his charge to the inside from his 10 post down the stretch the first time as Strub (gr. II) winner Monterey Jazz, the tepid 7-2 favorite, took command over the tracking Air Commander and grade I winner Student Council.
“He got excited a little bit before the race, so when we broke from the gate, I just let him go," Bejarano said. "But after that, I was able to find a good position for him and we were able to hold it the whole race.”
With Russell Baze -- Hollendorfer's longtime number one rider in Northern California -- aboard, Monterey Jazz ran a controlled opening quarter mile of :24.02. But after that, he was gone, leading a strung out field by as many as 12 lengths in an attempt to emulate his Strub victory. The remaining fractions were hot for the journey -- :46.89, 1:10.11 and 1:34.87 for the first mile.
But Monterey Jazz was getting weary at the top of the lane and proved to be easy pickings for Heatseeker, closing powerfully in the middle of the track. Heatseeker edged away to a clear advantage in the final eighth but came under pressure to hold off Sunshine Millions Classic winner Go Between for trainer Bill Mott.
"I heard (Go Between) coming at the end.," Bejarano said "That’s why I just kept riding as hard as I could. But I was confident we were going to hold on because my horse was still running, he was still giving me a lot of power."
Champs Elysees, who had never run on anything but turf before this, weaved his way through traffic in the homestretch to take third under Ramon Dominguez. Dual grade I winner Tiago ran fourth.
Heatseeker improved his record to 6-4-2 in 15 starts with earnings of $930,223. He has fashioned a 3-3-1 mark in eight tries on synthetic tracks. Heatseeker's only prior graded win had come in the 1 1/8-mile Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park Dec. 8. Heatseeker was consigned at Ireland's Goffs Orby Yearling Sale in 2004 by Abbeville and Meadow Court Studs.
Sent off as the fourth choice under 116 pounds, he paid $16, $7 and $4.80. Peter Vegso's Go Between, another turf star who signaled his fondness for the Santa Anita surface with his two-length win in the Sunshine Millions, returned $7 and $5.20, completing an $89.60 exacta.
"I just kind of bided my time waiting," Gomez said of Go Between's late effort. "I followed Bejarano. I thought his horse would be live. I thought once I covered my horse, he would kick on. He tried to, but the other horse just had a little more than we had.”
Juddmonte Farms' Champs Elysees, winner of the San Marcos (gr. IIT) in his last start for trainer Bobby Frankel, was worth $7.80 to show after finishing 2 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up.
“This horse absolutely loved the surface," Dominguez said. "I feel without hesitation that he was the best horse in the race. But unfortunately, I don’t know if being in the one-hole had something to do with it, having to wait for the other horses to load, but he broke very, very flat-footed. He had so much ground to make up. I was last through almost the whole race.”
Baze said Monterey Jazz, who faded to 12th, wouldn't be slowed.
“The first three-eighths he was very relaxed," Baze said of the front-runner. "He picked up the bit and was running along nice and relaxed. But just before we got to the first turn, he grabbed the bit and jumped up into it. They told me the harder you pull on him, the faster he is going to go. So I was trying to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
"I know the track hasn’t been favoring speed, but you can’t use that as an excuse because everybody else ran over it. A speed horse on any track has to win or lose on his own ability. If he would have relaxed today and run a perfect race, I think he would have been a tough horse to beat. So I think he kind of cost himself the race. I can’t blame it on the track.”
It was a half-length to Tiago, followed by Zappa, Student Council, Awesome Gem, Great Hunter, Air Commander, Big Booster, Seminole Native, Monterey Jazz, Medici Code and Celtic Dreamin.