Front-running Mr Gruff won his stakes debut in style, turning back a brief challenge in the lane to win the $100,000 San Simeon Handicap (gr. IIIT) (VIDEO) on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita April 18.
Ridden by Joel Rosario, Mr Gruff shook loose of favored Desert Code at the top of the stretch after being pressed on a fast pace. Challenged by Euroglide after opening up by 2 1/2 lengths mid-stretch, Rosario went to the right-handed whip briefly in the final furlong to remain clear. The 5-year-old son of Mr. Greeley posted a three-quarters of a length win over the 21-1 outsider Doppio, who surged past Euroglide in the final strides to take the runner-up spot by a half-length. The final time for the about 6 1/2-furlong distance was a sharp 1:11.88.
Desert Code, the 122-pound highweight, was slightly favored at 5-2 over Prussian (115) and Mr Gruff (114). He faded to finish last in the eight-horse field.
Owned by Gary Broad, Mr Gruff gave trainer Ron Ellis back-to-back wins on the Santa Anita program, the next-to-last racing day at the meet. It was the third win of the day for Rosario, who had missed two days of action this week because of a bad cold.
“I had the flu, and I was sore all over," Rosario said after his 81st win of the stand. "I took a lot of medicine, and I’m feeling much better. It’s been a great meet, very nice, and I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve had.”
Mr Gruff posted swift quarter-mile fractions of :22.01 and :43.61 before pulling away from Desert Code, who had won five of seven races on the hillside turf course previously, including last fall's $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at odds of 36-1.
“We went pretty fast the first half (mile), but my horse likes to be on the lead, so I sent him," Rosario said. "After the first half, he relaxed pretty good and he went all the way."
Doppio, last after a half-mile with Alex Solis aboard, angled out in upper stretch and finished strongly to take second. The stalker Euroglide, ridden by Michael Baze, switched to the outside leaving the hill and briefly threatened but was drifting in late. Tiz West finished fourth, followed by El Merito, who was making his United States debut; Prussian; Jungle Prince; and Desert Code.
Since Ellis switched Mr Gruff to the turf this year, he has won three of four starts over the course. The dark bay or brown gelding broke his maiden by 4 1/4 lengths in January, then was beaten a nose in a first-level allowance race. In his most recent start March 11, Mr Gruff dominated an allowance field by 2 3/4 lengths. In all, the lightly raced Mr Gruff has three wins and two seconds in six lifetime starts while earning $137,880.
"He’s got a lot of natural speed, and Desert Code looked like he was struggling keeping up with him the first half-mile," Ellis said of the winner. "He’s really learned to run down this hill, so he just kind of spurted away at the head of the lane. But it looked like Joel had a ton of horse all the way."
Ellis said that he would like to arrange a schedule for Mr Gruff that would see him return to Oak Tree at Santa Anita Nov. 7 for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
"The reason I jumped him from an a (first-level allowance race) into this race was to see if he was good enough to handle stake horses, and obviously, he is," he said. "I think being a hill specialist can be a big advantage for that Breeders’ Cup race. We got some graded earnings for this ($60,000), and I’ll probably keep him lightly raced, pointing for that race.”
Robert Spiegel bred the winner, who is out of Ruff (by Clever Trick), in Kentucky.
Sent off as the third choice, Mr Gruff paid $7.60, $5, and $3.60 while heading a $2 exacta worth $134.40. Doppio, in his second start of the year for trainer Carla Gaines, returned $17.60 and $7. The Peter Eurton-trained Euroglide posted his seventh consecutive in-the-money finish and paid $5.40 to show.