Kelly Leak, who held off Azul Leon in the closing strides to reach the wire first by a nose, was dropped all the way to fourth in the 6 1/2-furlong test for 2-year-olds. Stewards said Kelly Leak, who was drifting outward in upper stretch, caused a "chain reaction" when he corrected course under right-handed whipping from jockey Victor Espinoza. That action resulted in shutting off Charlie's Moment, whose rider, Jon Court, was forced to take up severely, causing Kelly Leak's disqualification for interference in the stretch.
It appeared in replays that the bottleneck that compromised Charlie's Moment occurred when Azul Leon, rallying six wide on the far side for Rafael Bejarano, cut inside of the drifting Kelly Leak. That opening shrunk quickly as Kelly Leak started back inward and the squeeze was compounded by Coronet of a Baron, who had taken the lead on the inside of the others coming into the homestretch, but was drifting out into their path mid-stretch.
Kelly Leak, who did not appear to make contact, had a short lead past mid-stretch, but Azul Leon, on his inside, battled on to the wire only to come up just shy.
In the revised order of finish, Azul Leon, the 9-5 favorite, was placed first, followed by Coronet of a Baron, Charlie's Moment, and Kelly Leak, who was making only his second start. The final time was 1:16.73 on the Polytrack surface.
Instead of the $90,000 winner's share for the Best Pal, the connections for Kelly Leak (Blahut Racing and partners) receive $9,000 for fourth.
Azul Leon won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III) with a sweeping move on the outside in his last start July 5, and Bejarano said afterward that he wanted to make a similar charge in the Best Pal before being forced to cut to the inside by Kelly Leak's antics.
"He (Victor Espinoza on Kelly Leak) was coming in on me," Bejarano said. "He cost me the race. He was watching me and first I tried to go out, then I had to go in. My horse deserved to win.
"(Azul Leon) showed me something today. He gave me two great runs. He made a big move for me from the back on the turn, then when I got stopped, he came back and made another move for me."
Espinoza blamed Bejarano.
"It's not my fault if the other jockey can't ride his horse. He just happened to be in the wrong place. I was riding my horse and riding my race. That's all."
"It definitely looked like the horse had to alter his course," said winning trainer Doug O'Neill. "Rafael wanted to go outside, but he felt like that had been taken away from him, so he bounced inside and it got pretty tight in there. You could tell the stewards were scratching their heads over this. We love to win, but I hate to win under these circumstances. It was tough for the horses, too. There were four gutsy 2-year-olds going for the wire. I feel if Azul Leon had clear sailing he could have gotten up."
The victory was the third in a row for Azul Leon, a homebred son of leading first-crop sire Lion Heart owned by the Joseph Lacombe stable. O'Neill said that Azul Leon was not being pointed to the major 2-year-old race of the Del Mar meet, the Futurity (gr. I), which is on closing day Sept. 3. Azul Leon nearly doubled his lifetime earnings to $182,400 with his Best Pal triumph.
A hotly contested early pace found S.S. Stone, Miguel's Mascot, and Coronet of a Baron vying for the lead through quarter-mile fractions of :23.07 and :46.21. The other two gave way by the time the field left the turn, leaving Coronet of a Baron, ridden by Corey Nakatani, briefly in front as Kelly Leak, rallying five wide, challenged.
Azul Leon paid $5.60, $3 and $2.40, finishing three-quarters of a length in front of Coronet of a Baron, who also went off at 9-5 odds and returned $3.40 and $2.80. Charlie's Moment, who had prompted the pace into the stretch, was $4.80 to show.
Fu Peg He Rat, Turbo Call, Miguel's Mascot, and S.S. Stone completed the order of finish.
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