Unusual Suspect, the second-longest shot on the board at 24-1, won a head-bobbing decision over Richard's Kid to capture the $150,000 Cougar II Handicap (VIDEO) at Del Mar and sewed up a starting berth in the Breeders' Cup Marathon.
Alonso Quinonez guided the California-bred 5-year-old son of Unusual Heat to the surprise win after the pacesetters in the 1 1/2-mile Polytrack event fell apart in the stretch run. That set it up for second choice Richard's Kid and Unusual Suspect to fight it out for the final furlong. Unusual Suspect, on the inside, appeared to get an extremely slight advantage in the final strides and he gutted it out under strong urging for a nose victory. The final time was 2:31.22.
Church Service, the 2-1 favorite in the field of veteran distance runners, closed from last in the final quarter-mile to edge Gangbuster, another closer for third by a half-length. Church Service was 1 1/2 lengths behind the first two.
The Cougar II is a "Breeders' Cup Challenge" race, guaranteeing an automatic berth in the $500,000 Breeders' Cup Marathon to Unusual Suspect. The 1 3/4-mile race will take place during the two-day championship event at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 6-7.
Barry Abrams trains and co-owns the dark bay horse with his brother David and Dyan Abrams, who bred him from the New Zealand mare Penpont (by Crested Wave). A grade III winner in a 2008 turf sprint, Unusual Suspect pocketed $90,000 for his eighth lifetime win in 38 starts. The victory boosted his career bankroll to $729,100.
"I thought this was a weak field, and I believed my horse is good enough to win if he can go a mille and a half," said Abrams, who also won the first race on the Del Mar card with 19-1 shot Bling Star Dreams. "He did it. Alonso rode him perfectly. This horse has won on grass, dirt and synthetic and sprinting and now going a mile and a half.”
Ghetto, ridden by Joe Talamo, went directly to front and led by about 2 1/2 lengths early while going a fast pace for the distance. He was tracked by defending Cougar winner Zappa and Quarter Moon with Sir Dave rated in fourth. Fractional times were :24.24 for the opening quarter-mile, :48.42 for the half and 1:13.38 for six furlongs. The mile was completed in 1:38.98. Zappa was the first to drop out on the far turn, but Ghetto held tough to mid-stretch, overtaken first by Richard's Kid, ridden by Victor Espinoza on the outside, and then by Unusual Suspect. At the sixteenth pole, those two had left the others behind and fought it out to the wire.
Unusual Suspect was sixth with a quarter-mile to run, with Richard's Kid right in front of him.
“I was wanting to get him over to the rail, because he relaxes so well down there," Quinonez said after his second stakes win at Del Mar. "But I had to wait because there were so many horses inside me. But I got there and he was running easy. Near the far turn we started to pick it up and I got a good run from there. When I asked him, he gave me his all. He really fired. I thought I won it. But it was close, so close.”
“We did everything but win," lamented Espinoza. "He’s a different animal on this surface as opposed to the turf. He tried really hard today.”
Unusual Suspect had lost five straight races since taking the Silveyville Stakes on the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields Dec 26. He was coming off a close fourth-place finish on turf in the 1 1/16-mile California Dreamin' Handicap for state breds at Del Mar July 26. The Cougar II was his first try at the 12-furlong distance.
Abrams said he would consider the Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT) on turf Aug. 30 for Unusual Suspect's next start.
The winner carried 116 pounds and paid $51, $18.20 and $7.20, topping a $2 exacta worth $317.20. Richard's KId, seventh in the Eddie Read Stakes (gr. IT) on turf in his last start, returned $5.60 and $3.40. Church Service, with Garrett Gomez aboard, was $2.60 to show.
“He was acting like a horse that was only going to beat two or three of them," Gomez said. "I was back there pedalin’ and pedalin’ and we weren’t going anywhere. Then all of a sudden in the last sixteenth he came firing. What can you do?”
Gangbuster was followed by Ghetto, Quarter Moon, Sir Dave, Big Booster and Zappa. Mr. Big scratched.