Crafty 8-year-old Ball Four, reunited with trainer Patrick Biancone for his first start in four months, dealt heavily-favored Rail Trip his first career defeat by going gate to wire to win the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Hollywood Park May 9.
Ridden by Joe Talamo, multiple graded winner Ball Four got away with comfortable fractions and turned back the stalking Rail Trip mid-stretch to post a 16-1 upset. Ball Four won by 1 1/4 lengths while completing the 1 1/16-mile distance in a time of 1:41.58 on Hollywood's Cushion Track synthetic surface.
Now owned by Flying Zee Stable, Ball Four had not raced since finishing last of nine in Santa Anita's San Pasqual Handicap (gr. IIT) Jan. 10, when he was conditioned by Todd Pletcher. The Grand Slam gelding raced for Biancone before moving to Pletcher following a sixth-place finish in the 2007 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).
Rail Trip had won five consecutive races for trainer Ron Ellis and was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the six-horse field. Usually on the lead, jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. was content to let the lightly-raced 4-year-old son of Jump Start rate behind Ball Four, who was hustled to the front out of the gate by Talamo and allowed to coast through soft splits of :24.38, :47.94 and 1:11.85.
Asked for more on the final turn and in upper stretch, Rail Trip drew close to the leader briefly, but could not match strides as Ball Four edged away halfway down the lane. The winner was in command while under a strong hand ride in the final furlong. Valdivia did not go the whip on Rail Trip, who held off Dakota Phone and Rafael Bejarano by a half-length for second.
Ellis took Rail Trip's first loss in three tries at Hollywood Park in stride, no doubt thinking ahead to the $250,000 Californian (gr. II) June 13 and, ultimately, the $700,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. ) July 11. The lanky bay gelding, patiently advanced up the condition ladder since his debut last November until winning his first stakes April 4, was making his first graded appearance.
"Patrick got that horse turned around," Ellis said in reference to Ball Four. "We didn't put much pressure on him and he had a lot left. I think I underestimated him a little bit."
As for Rail Trip, he added, "It was his first time in a real heated battle. He'll learn, he'll learn."
"When we hit the turn my horse did what he usually does," Valdivia said of Rail Trip. "He got into the bridle and started scooting up closer. All I had was a half-length to make up and I thought I had dead aim. (Ball Four) just came up with a big race. That was the first time my horse had to face these kind of horses. He's still giving away a lot of experience. I'm definitely disappointed but I wouldn't get down on him."
Talamo was jubilant. "It felt great," he said. "He (Ball Four) pretty much did the whole job for me. Patrick got him here fresh. He told me to get the lead and (Ball Four) will do the rest. At the quarter pole I tried to leave him (Rail Trip) as quick as I could, try to open up as much as I could, and he did. He's a neat old horse.
"Obviously, I feel bad for the connections of Rail Trip," Talamo added. "You always like to see a horse go undefeated, but not today."
Ball Four's last win came in Keeneland's Fayette (gr. III) for Pletcher last fall. He previously won the 2006 Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II) at Turfway Park for Biancone. The victory, the bay's seventh in 25 lifetime starts, boosted his earnings to $711,520. Ball Four became the oldest horse to win the 30-year-old Mervyn LeRoy.
“What a lovely old horse," Biancone said. "He runs well fresh and he was in great condition when we bought him from Pletcher. I told Joe if you go :48 for the first half a mile, it’s over. When I saw :47.94 I said 'you were a little bit too fast.' When you look at all his races and he goes between 47 and change and :48 they never catch him. That was the case today.
"We’ll see how he is; we cannot run too often, so we will space a little bit, then go from there.”
Sent off as the second-longest price on the board, Ball Four carried 118 pounds to victory and paid $34, $9.80, and $3.80. Rail Trip, the 119-pound high weight, returned $2.80 and $2.10. The $2 exacta was worth $79.20. Dakota Phone, who was nosed by Rail Trip in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita last time out, finished willingly and paid $2.10 to show. Unusual Suspect, Fire Wood and Aggie Engineer trailed.
B.D. Gibbs Farm and Grand Slam Farm bred Ball Four in Kentucky. He is out of Making Faces, by Lyphard.