Trainer Doug O'Neill watched his retired star Lava Man lead the post parade for Oak Tree's $250,000 California Cup Classic, then saw his newest stable standout Mr. Chairman dig in to defeat the favored filly Romance Is Diane by a head Oct. 5 at Santa Anita.
The Cal Cup Classic was the centerpiece of a 10-race stakes program for California breds offering a total of $1,225,000.
Racing for the first time on a synthetic track, Mr. Chairman responded to strong right-handed urging from jockey Michael Baze to get up in the final couple of strides over the 8-5 choice Romance Is Diane, the first filly to run in the Cal Cup Classic's 19-year history. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile distance over the Pro-Ride racing surface was 1:47.93.
"Michael did such a good job," said O'Neill, who retired Lava Man in July but brought him back to the track for the Cal Cup to lead the field for a race the state-bred gelding never won. "Halfway down the stretch, I was thinking (Mr. Chairman) wouldn't get there and second in the Cal Cup Classic would be great. But he kept trying."
Mr. Chairman, whose past seven starts were on turf, was set to go in the Cal Cup Mile on the lawn. But when defending Classic champion Bold Chieftain was instead pointed to that race, O'Neill called an audible and switched Mr. Chairman to the Classic. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision for owners Great Friends Stable, a partnership group of about 20 owners that includes Santa Anita marketing director Craig Dado.
Cheroot went to the lead and carved fast fractions (:23.08, :46.84, 1:10.41) as Top Emblem and South Coast tracked.
Romance Is Diane, a grade I winner making her final start for trainer Mike Mitchell, had a difficult trip after being shuffled back early and forced to rally on the outside on the final turn. But she grabbed the lead at the top of the stretch for jockey Rafael Bejarano and led by a length at the eighth pole. She proved difficult to run down in a game effort. But Mr. Chairman, four wide on the outside of the filly, kept busy through the lane to get the job done. It was one length back to the show horse Add Heat.
Mr. Chairman has not been out of the money in seven starts in 2008 while winning four times. He was coming off an optional claiming allowance win at 1 3/8 miles on the grass Aug. 24 Del Mar. This was his first stakes appearance since running third in the 2006 Cal Cup Starter Handicap.
The 5-year-old Unusual Heat gelding, bred by David Abrams and Tom Roberts from the Corporate Report mare Chairwoman, improved his lifetime mark to 5-2-3 in 12 starts with earnings of $338,578.
As the third choice in the field of eight, Mr. Chairman paid $8.40, $3.80 and $2.80. Romance Is Diane returned $3.20 and $2.40. Add Heat, ridden by Alex Solis, was $2.60 to show. Top This and That finished fourth.
$125,000 California Cup Juvenile: Lucky Primo, ridden by Joel Rosario, rallied to overtake Triumphant Flight and score a two-length win over a field of 13 2-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles on the Pro-Ride racing surface.
Lucky Primo ($14.40) is a son of Atticus owned by J B K Stables and Litt and bred by Joshua and Jason Litt and Dennis O'Neill. The winning trainer is Martin Jones.
Triumphant Flight finished second with favored Escalon third. The winning time was 1:43.36.
$150,000 California Cup Distaff Handicap: Stalker Lightmyfirebaby came off the fence in the stretch to tag 30-1 shot Christiana's by a half-length in the 6 1/2-furlong test on the hillside turf course for fillies and mares.
The 5-year-old Unusual Heat mare notched her fourth win in 12 starts in 2008 for owner Richard J. O'Neill Trust and trainer Barry Abrams. She boosted her career earnings to $444,437 with her sixth victory in 23 starts. Lightmyfirebaby ($8.20) was bred by David Abrams, Victor Johnson, Jack Nakkashian and Paul Wick.
Christiana's Heat finished second, followed by North Rodeo. Favored Tutta Bella set the pace and finished fourth. The winning time was 1:12.58.
$150,000 California Cup Sprint Handicap: Favored Tribesman bucked the trend by winning on the front end in the six-furlong Pro-Ride test, posting a 1 1/4-length victory under jockey Russell Baze.
Tribesman ($7.40), a son of Tribal Rule owned and bred by Kjell Qvale, earned his eighth win in 15 starts and boosted his bankroll to $376,781. Roger Hansen trains the bay gelding.
Johnny Eves was second after battling the winner in the stretch, with Partywithlarryz third. The final time was 1:07.85.
$175,000 California Cup Mile Handicap: Swift Winds came from off the pace for jockey Alonso Quinonez to register an 11-1 upset in the turf tilt.
Jack D. Burk's homebred is a 5-year-old King of the Hunt gelding trained by Victor Garcia. A 29-race veteran, Swift Winds ($24.20) has seven wins and earnings of $386,594.
Bold Chieftain, the 4-5 favorite in the field of eight, ran second, with Liberian Freighter third. The final time was 1:33.84.
$125,000 California Cup Juvenile Fillies: Trailing the field early, favored Saucey Evening threaded her way through traffic for jockey Garrett Gomez to score a 2 3/4-length triumph.
The 2-year-old daughter of More Than Ready was a $160,000 Keeneland yearling buy in September 2007. H. Graham Motion trains the chestnut for Augustin Stable. Betty and Larry Mabee bred the winner, who was making her first two-turn attempt. She has won twice in four starts and earned $116,740.
Saucey Evening ($4.60) ran the 1 1/16-mile Pro-Ride distance in 1:43.14. Ten Churros ran second, with Spanish Ice third.
$100,000 California Cup Distance Handicap: Distant Victory, the 1-2 favorite, overcame a slow start, rallying from last under Victor Espinoza to win by 1 1/4 lengths in the 1 1/4-mile event for fillies and mares.
A bay filly by Distant View, Distant Victory ($3) is trained by Carla Gaines for owners Scott Gross and Harris Farms, who bred the 3-year-old along with Braddock Services Inc. Her fourth win six starts increased her earnings to $199,596.
Rushen Heat finished second in the six-horse field, with Sports Edition third. The time was 2:01.69
$150,000 California Cup Matron: Famous Ruby, the second-longest shot on the board, rallied in the final strides to wear down Barbara's Love for a neck victory at 1 1/16 miles.
Ridden by Joel Rosario for owner/trainer Jorge L. Alcala, Famous Ruby ($35.80) is a 3-year-old daughter of Western Fame bred by Applebite Farms. The chestnut, purchased for $5,000 as a yearling at Barretts in October 2006, increased her lifetime earnings to $129,200 with her third win in seven starts.
Barbara's Love finished second, a neck in front of Stroppy. Bai and Bai, the 2-5 favorite in the field of six, finished last. The winning time over the Pro-Ride racing surface was 1:43.40.