Seven-year-old Neko Bay earned the first graded stakes victory of his career in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO), winning a dash to the wire in the final sixteenth of a mile at Santa Anita Jan. 9.
With Mike Smith aboard, the Jerry and Ann Moss homebred charged into contention on the outside in mid-stretch. The seven-horse field had spread out across the track inside the eighth pole and Nownownow, exploiting an opening along the inside, gained a short lead.
Several had a shot, but Neko Bay outfought them all under left-handed urging, spurting away to win by 1 3/4 lengths in a terrific finish over the late-running Spurrier, who nosed Nownownow for the runner-up spot. The final time in the 1 1/16-mile event for older horses was 1:42.95 on the Pro-Ride.
Furthest Land, the 3-5 favorite, had every opportunity while stalking a pedestrian pace in second, but faltered late after challenging for the lead in upper stretch. The 2009 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) victor finished last as the 121-pound top weight.
Trained by John Shirreffs, Neko Bay, a Giant's Causeway horse out of the Rubiano mare Brulay, had only 12 starts coming into the San Pasqual. A hard-trying type who has finished in the money in all but two of his races, the dark bay finally had his day while registering his fifth lifetime win, all of them coming on Santa Anita's main track.
Bred in Kentucky, Neko Bay finished sixth in the BC Dirt Mile and followed that with a third-place effort in the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park in his last race Dec. 12.
“His last race was better than it seems," Smith said of the Native Diver. "We were in behind a slow, slow pace and today John wanted me to get him back and make one run and that’s what he did. The way it turned out, I think his last race set him up perfect for today.”
Neko Bay had no early speed in fifth as 70-1 shot Goldsville took up the early running with Furthest Land, tugging hard at jockey Garrett Gomez on the clubhouse turn, and Bold Chieftain stalking. Fractions for the opening quarter-mile splits were an easy :24.70, :49.47 and 1:13.45, and Goldsville took the field well into the stretch.
Furthest Land, pressed by Bold Chieftain on his outside, went for an early run and dueled briefly on the front end, but the rest of the field, notably Nownownow along the inside and Neko Bay, five wide on the outside, were moving into position for the drive. Inside the eighth pole, it appeared that any of the seven had a chance to win. But Neko Bay proved best.
Spurrier, who was last at the eighth pole under Joel Rosario, rallied willingly on the outside of Neko Bay to just get up for second. Nownownow, ridden by Joe Talamo, finished a neck better than Northern California invader Bold Chieftain and Russell Baze. Then came Goldsville, Cherokee Artist and Furthest Land.
Neko Bay earned $90,000 for the win and has now banked $323,020 in his career.
“He ran just the way we hoped he would run," Shirreffs said. "We like to have him come off the pace a little bit and he seems to run a little better if he has something left in the tank. As you see, he’s not a big strong horse.
"It’s always difficult to get them strong enough to be campaigned, and that’s been his thing. He hasn’t been really strong enough to go into a real strict, hard campaign.”
Sent off as the second choice, Neko Bay carried 116 pounds and paid $12.40, $6.20, and $4 while topping a $152.20 exacta. Spurrier, the second-longest shot on the board, returned $14 and $6.80 in his first stakes appearance for trainer Bob Baffert. The grade II winner Nonownow, making his first start since last March, was worth $4.80 to show in a fine comeback try for trainer Patrick Biancone.