Facing winners for the first time, WinStar Farm's Endorsement shipped to Sunland Park and Casino from Louisiana and handed Triple Crown contender Conveyance his first defeat in the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) in New Mexico March 28.
In its first year as a graded stakes, the Sunland Derby produced quite a surprise in the 11-1 shot Endorsement, a son of Distorted Humor making his fourth lifetime start. Out of the A.P. Indy mare Charmed Gift, the $450,00 Keeneland yearling purchase in September 2008 was coming off a 2 1/4-length maiden score at Oaklawn Park Feb. 20.
Ridden for the first time by Robby Albarado for trainer Shannon Ritter, Endorsement was in perfect position to challenge the pacesetting Conveyance on the final turn. He took control leaving the eighth pole and drew off to win by three lengths. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test over a fast track was an excellent 1:48.46, just off the track record of 1:48 1/5 established by Winsham Lad in 1961.
Endorsement earned $400,000 for his Sunland Derby win and is assured of having enough graded stakes earnings to run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 1 at Churchill Downs should his connections want to do so.
Zabeel Racing International's Conveyance, who came to Sunland from Southern California for trainer Bob Baffert off back-to-back grade III victories, was unbeaten in four starts. Sent off at 3-5 odds, he had no excuse, getting the lead the way he likes it and posting sensible fractions of :23.71, :48.04 and 1:11.91.
But Endorsement spoiled the perfect setup, sitting about a length off the leader through the early going before moving up effortlessly on the outside to challenge rounding the turn. He soon put a head in front and as he did so, jockey Martin Garcia went to work on the favorite to keep up. As those two left the rest behind, Conveyance kept it close through the mid-point of the stretch run before he began to yield to the surprising Endorsement. The latter finished up powerfully to win going away while ridden out by Albarado.
"He put himself in the race early. He gave himself a chance,'' Albarado said. "Going around the first turn, he was going really easy. Backside, he jumped in the bridle, which is fine, because it was time to go anyway.
"In the turn, I caught the favorite. He was riding but he wasn't gaining any ground. I knew when I'd call on Endorsement, he'd come from underneath me, and he did.''
Conveyance, whom Baffert described as the best horse he had ever brought to Sunland, was a clear second by three lengths and earned $176,000 for second. That gives the son of Indian Charlie total graded earnings of $386,000 and clinches a Kentucky Derby berth.
Baffert was happy with the way Conveyance ran and gave full credit to Endorsement.
"(Conveyance) ran a good race. We just got beat by a really good horse today,'' Baffert said.
"If Endorsement hadn't been in there, I think we would have looked like superstars,'' he added. "We still have a way to go. I would have loved to win this race. But I think the horse that beat us, of all the others I've seen lately, that was pretty impressive. I think we saw a star born today.''
Tempted to Tapit figures to be on the Derby bubble after earning $96,000 for finishing third while never threatening, six lengths behind the winner. Fog Alert was fourth. Mine That Bird ran fourth in this race prior to his stunning upset in last year's Kentucky Derby.
Bred in Kentucky by Kilroy Thoroughbred Partnership, Endorsement began his career running seventh in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs last November. The chestnut colt kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with a second-place finish in a one mile, 40-yard maiden race Jan. 10 at Fair Grounds, where he has continued to train. He shipped to Arkansas to break his maiden as the favorite at Oaklawn Park at 1 1/16 miles six weeks later.
It was the biggest victory as a trainer for Ritter, a former jockey who said the highlight of her eight-year career was once being the leading rider at Portland Meadows. Known as a hands-on trainer who often gets aboard on training rides, she can turn her mind to the Kentucky Derby.
"I'll discuss that with the WinStar crew and take it from there,'' Ritter said. "We'll see how he comes back from the race. He's going to fly back to Kentucky on Tuesday (March 30) morning. We're going to the Keeneland meet. We'll take things from there.''
Endorsement paid $25.40, $8.60 and $4.40. Conveyance returned $2.80 and $2.10, completing a $71.40 exacta. Tempted to Tapit, who ran second in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds in his prior race for trainer Steve Klesaris, was $3 to show with regular rider David Cohen aboard.
In a well-spaced finish, it was two lengths to Fog Alert, who was followed by Nacho Friend, Storming Saint, McKenna's Justice, Classical Slew and Guiltbyassociation.
The track reported it enjoyed the biggest day in its 51-year-old history. A record crowd of 18,564 fans witnessed the first graded race in New Mexico history. A total of $2,390,554 was wagered on Sunland races from off-track sources while the on-track fans bet $408,426. The total handle of $2,798,980 set a track record.