Cowboy Cal is headed to the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in one month following his hard-fought win in the $250,000 Strub Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Santa Anita Feb. 7.
Always close to pacesetter Wishful Tomcat in the 1 1/8-mile event for 4-year-olds, Cowboy Cal seized the lead near the eighth pole under jockey John Velazquez, as a wall of horses in the 13-horse field bore down on the leaders mid-stretch. But Cowboy Cal finished best of all to tally a three-quarters of a length victory over the late-running Blue Exit, who edged the outsiders Victory Pete and Dixie Chatter for the runner-up spot. The final time was 1:48.22 on the Pro-Ride racing surface.
Cowboy Cal has back-to-back grade II victories on the Santa Anita main track for trainer Todd Pletcher, winning the San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) over older horses Jan. 10. Owner/breeders Robert and Janice McNair, who sold their farm, Stonerside Stable, last year as well as most of their stock, held onto the Kentucky-bred son of Giant's Causeway , who is named for their son.
"I'm sure they're thrilled," Pletcher said of the owners. "This horse had sentimental reasons to keep him, and it has worked out well."
The versatile Cowboy Cal has been effective on turf as well, winning four of six starts on the grass, but his immediate future is in the $1 million Big 'Cap, Pletcher said. The race will be contested at 1 1/4 miles March 7.
“We came here (to Southern California) with the idea of going through the Strub series and going to the Big ’Cap, and that will be our next step," Pletcher said. "He’s very courageous. We’ve been just trying to get him to settle the first part of the race. He wants to be a little bit headstrong early. The fractions were very reasonable today, and I thought he settled pretty well. He’d be better suited if there’s a real hot pace up in front of him; we can get him to relax a little more. But it was a quality effort, a quality horse, and he shows up every time.”
Wishful Tomcat led from the outset while posting moderate fractions of :23.82, :48.10, and 1:12.10, with Cowboy Cal, Victory Pete, and Slew's Tiznow, who was angled over from the far outside, in pursuit. Cowboy Cal took over when Wishful Tomcat began to tire and would not be headed even though several challenged in the final furlong.
“He relaxed a little better for me than he did the other day (in the San Pasqual), but he still pulls really hard," Velazquez said. "We had a good trip and down the lane, (and) when he passed the horse on the inside (Wishful Tomcat), he had to dig in again because those other horses were coming on the outside.”
Blue Exit, who rallied from ninth in the stretch to take second under Mike Smith, got up between foes by a half-length over Victory Pete and Chantal Sutherland.
Cowboy Cal, second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland last spring before a ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), posted his sixth lifetime win (along with three seconds) in 11 starts. The winning purse of $150,000 elevated the dark bay or brown colt's lifetime earnings to $747,708. The homebred is out of Texas Tammy, by Seeking the Gold.
Sent off as the narrow second choice, the winner paid $8.60, $5.60, and $4. Blue Exit turned in a big late effort for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, returning $16.80 and $10.80 and rounding out a $2 exacta worth $158.60. Victory Pete, trained by Alexis Barba, paid $17.40 to show.
Dixie Chatter finished a neck back in fourth while a nose better than the lukewarm favorite Gio Ponti, who finished willingly but was out-kicked late. Then came in close succession Cause, Nownownow, and Wishful Tomcat. They were followed by Cherokee Artist, Medjool, Wesley, Slew's Tiznow, and Trevor's Clever.