Lea opened a big lead off the final turn and turned back the late charge of 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge to capture the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO) in track-record time Feb. 9 at Gulfstream Park.
Joel Rosario guided 11-2 shot Lea to victory by 1 1/2 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Donn, which was timed in a sensational 1:46.86 over a fast track. Gulfstream lists the former mark for the distance as 1:47.49 by Quality Road .
Lea is 2-for-2 since being transferred to the barn of trainer Bill Mott late last year, taking the one-mile Hal's Hope (gr. III) at Gulfstream Jan. 11 by 3 1/4 lengths. He posted the first grade I victory of his career in the Donn.
Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Kentucky homebred is a 5-year-old chestnut horse by Claiborne stallion First Samurai and is the first foal out of the Galileo mare Greenery.
Will Take Charge, the 3-2 choice in the field of 11 older horses, finished second, with 44-1 shot Viramundo third.
Lea had mostly raced on turf for previous trainer Albert Stall Jr. but has really taken to the Gulfstream main track for Mott. The Hall of Fame conditioner earned his record third Donn victory and his first since Cigar won back-to-back renewals during his 16-race win streak in 1995-96.
"It's always a different challenge when you move to the dirt," he said. "I felt (Lea) was capable, but the competition was stiff and we were in against a champion. We were good enough to beat him today."
Last season, Lea was twice up against Horse of the Year Wise Dan, finishing second to the multiple Eclipse winner in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) and third in the Fourstardave (gr. IIIT).
"Whenever you have a horse with Bill Mott, you know they're going to run well," said Claiborne's Dell Hancock. "We knew he'd run well and we thought he'd get the distance because of his pedigree, but for him to run like that—it's exciting."
Lea was always prominent in the Donn while racing four wide early before settling into second just off pacesetter Uncaptured, who took the field along through an opening quarter mile of :23.40. Lea poked his head in front after a half in :47.21 and maintained a narrow edge over Uncaptured and Bourbon Courage while clipping off three-quarters in 1:10.90.
Will Take Charge raced mid-pack toward the inside for Luis Saez before angling out to advance around the turn between rivals. Meantime, Lea was forging a three-length advantage coming out of the bend and was urged along by Rosario until deep stretch as the long-striding Will Take Charge continued to close the gap through the lane. Lea reached the eighth pole in a sparkling 1:34.74 and came home the final eighth in :12.12 to eclipse the track mark.
"I knew turning for home the kind of horse he is," said Rosario after his first Donn victory. "He just never quit running, so I was very happy turning for home. I never worried about Will Take Charge coming from behind. It was all the horse. He did it so easy. The fact that he broke the track record doesn't surprise me."
Lea carried 117 pounds, six fewer than Will Take Charge, who was seeking to become the first 3-year-old champion to win the Donn. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee was making his initial start since sewing up post-season honors with a head victory over Game On Dude in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) Nov. 29.
"We got blocked for a bit and couldn't get out, so we couldn't move as quickly as we wanted to," said Lukas, who has never won the Donn. "That's just horse racing. We also didn't have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage. They had to set a new track record to beat us, so that's all you need to know. Kudos to the winner."
It was 9 1/4 lengths back to third-place finisher Viramundo, ridden by Paco Lopez. Then came Bourbon Courage, Uncaptured, Neck 'n Neck, Revolutionary, Joshua's Comprise, Macho Bull, River Seven, and Romansh.
Lea improved his career mark to 6-2-2 in 12 starts and the $300,000 winner's share boosted his bankroll to $709,618.
"I saw when (Will Take Charge) broke free and I knew he'd be running at us," Mott said. "We were good enough to scoot away from him. It's a long year and the big races are at the end of the year and there's a lot of good racing in between. Right now I'd love to point him for the Whitney (gr. I) at Saratoga."
The winner paid $13, $4.60, and $4 as fourth choice. Will Take Charge returned $3.40 and $2.80, completing a $51.40 exacta. Viramundo paid $11.80.