In search of firm turf, Wilkinson wound up in the Southern California barn of Jeff Mullins, who sent the 4-year-old colt out to spring a 44-1 shocker in the $150,000 American Handicap (gr. IIT) at Betfair Hollywood Park May 26 (VIDEO).
Always in contention with Martin Pedroza aboard, Wilkinson seized the lead from pacesetter Liberian Freighter in the stretch and finished up impressively as 3-5 pick Mr. Commons attempted in vain to catch him before the wire. Wilkinson, a son of Lemon Drop Kid owned by E. K. Gaylord II and bred in Kentucky by Gaillardia, won by 1 1/4 lengths.
“I only got the horse five days ago, so all the credit has to go to (previous trainer) Neil Howard," Mullins said. "I trained the mare (dam Tasha’s Delight) and she always tried hard. The trip was kind of what we wanted. (Gaylord) told me the horse needs to be close up and out of trouble. We let Marty know that and he did it perfectly."
The winner paid $90.60, $18.20, and $8.20 across the board and combined with the heavy favorite in the field of nine for a $2 exacta worth $200.80. Wilkinson completed the one-mile distance in a sharp 1:33.37 over firm turf.
Wilkinson snapped a six-race losing streak since winning an allowance/optional claiming event at Saratoga Race Course last August. The well-traveled colt's biggest win previously came in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) in February 2011 at Fair Grounds, which landed him briefly on the Triple Crown trail. Wilkinson went on to finish sixth in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and 10th in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I).
In his most recent start, Wilkinson finished sixth in the Elkhorn Stakes (gr. IIT) over 12 furlongs at Keeneland. Mullins said Wilkinson would probably move on to the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile (gr. IT) June 30 over the Hollywood turf.
Liberian Freighter, making his first start since last July, shot to the front for Martin Garcia and controlled the tempo while leading Compari and Wilkinson through solid splits of :23.56, :46.72, and 1:09.63. Wilkinson, stalking the leader in third toward the inside, angled out a bit rounding the bend, edged past Compari, and took up the fight in the lane with Liberian Freighter. Wilkinson got his head in front approaching mid-stretch and inched away under left-handed urging from Pedroza.
Mr. Commons, who tracked the leaders from near the rear of the pack for Mike Smith, was picking up the back markers as he progressed into fifth in the final bend. But Wilkinson had too much of a jump on the favorite, who closed much ground in the drive while coming through on the inside. Angled out in the final eighth of a mile, Mr. Commons continued to close the gap but could not match the game winner before the wire.
Pedroza said he followed Mullins's pre-race instructions with Wilkinson.
"He told me to send him leaving there and sit behind the first flight. I just fell right into a perfect trip," Pedroza said. "If I had done what I wanted to do, sit and make one run, I probably wouldn’t have won.”
Wilkinson carried 116 pounds, six fewer than Mr. Commons, who paid $2.40 and $2.10 to place. Trainer John Shirreffs said prior to the race that St. George Farm's 4-year-old son of Artie Schiller was using the American as a prep for the Shoemaker Mile.
“I thought he ran really well," Shirreffs said of Mr. Commons. "From that post position (10) he was on the outside, then he went inside and came back out. He ran a really good race. He’ll come back in the Shoemaker.”
Liberian Freighter ($5.40 to show), in a big effort off the long layoff for trainer Neil Drysdale, was a half-length behind Mr. Commons in third
“He ran very well for being away a year," Drysdale said of his multiple graded stakes winner. "He just got a little tired that last bit. He’ll improve off the race. The Shoemaker will probably be next.’’
Wilkinson, out of the Afternoon Deelites mare Tasha's Delight, earned $90,000 for his fifth lifetime win 18 races. He boostied his career bankroll to $336,994.