Top Fortitude, overlooked by bettors at 30-1 after a poor 2014 debut a month earlier, outfought his challengers in the stretch May 10 to post a huge surprise in the $100,000 Lazaro Barrera Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita Park (VIDEO).
An impressive maiden debut winner at Betfair Hollywood Park last November, the Triple AAA Ranch homebred threw in a stinker in his return April 12 at Santa Anita, finishing last in a field of 10. But reunited with Kayla Stra in his third start, the talented full brother of grade II winner Uh Oh Bango put it all together in the seven-furlong test for 3-year-olds.
Stra, an Australian native, picked up her first North American stakes win.
Top Fortitude posted a 1 1/2-length victory despite giving away quite a bit of ground while racing on the outside all the way around, and was timed in 1:22.98 over a fast track. Puerto Rican sensation Tonito M. rallied for second in his United States debut, with pacesetter Ferocious third. Kobe's Back faded in the stretch as the 7-10 favorite to be fourth in the field of seven.
Carrying 118 pounds, Top Fortitude paid a whopping $62.20, $17.80, and $9. Kentucky-bred Tonito M., a Puerto Rico grade I winner at 1 1/16 miles, returned $8.40 and $6.40 while toting co-high weight of 123 pounds. The exacta was worth $533.80. Ferocious paid $4 while rounding out a $1 trifecta worth $1,072.50; the superfecta with Kobe's Back fourth returned $2,465 for a $1 wager.
Trained by Kory Owens for his father, longtime Arizona owner/breeder Richard Owens, the winning son of Top Hit out of the French Deputy mare French Debutante had put in a pair of excellent works at Santa Anita following his disappointing return last month.
"He had such a bad race the last time he ran, but we always took it that it was due to the fact it was the first time he actually got pummeled by the throwback from dirt," the younger Owens said. "On synthetic, he didn't get this."
Always prominent for Stra while breaking on top from the far outside, Top Fortitude took back a bit off the fast early pace while remaining in the clear. Ferocious, leaving from the rail slot with Joe Talamo aboard, established the lead while hard pressed by Twenty Percent through opening quarter mile fractions of :22.95 and :46.19.
Kobe's Back, dominant winner of the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) at seven furlongs in February, was once again slow out of the gate—a problem that has plagued him throughout his career—and trailed the field in the early stages before finding a stalking position.
Allowed to run some on the turn, Top Fortitude engaged Ferocious as Twenty Percent dropped back. Kobe's Back, recovering from the tardy beginning, angled to the outside of those two to uncoil his charge and certainly looked threatening in upper stretch.
But after getting a narrow advantage, Top Fortitude was not to be denied. He finally put away a stubborn Ferocious past the eighth pole and, under strong right-handed urging from Stra, proved too much for Kobe's Back. The favorite gave up the chase late as Tonito M. rallied from between horses in the final sixteenth to get second under Victor Espinoza.
Stra said she wanted to avoid putting too much pressure on Top Fortitude early.
"I think the outside post helped," she said. "I was riding so hard my saddle slipped back (in the stretch); I just wanted to make sure no one would get by me.
"He's a tough horse (Top Fortitude); he's just so solid, even the way he's built. I knew he would handle the dirt, it's just the dirt in his face that he doesn't like. The bigger ones are always the most chicken about that stuff."
Stra was astride Top Fortitude for the chestnut colt's flashy debut, a 2 3/4-length-length triumph on the Cushion Track at Hollywood. Aaron Gryder had the mount last time. Stra, who recently became a mother, appeared in the winner's circle holding her baby.
Kobe's Back, who carried 123 pounds, was beaten by 2 1/2 lengths, with Puppy Manners, Twenty Percent, and Chelios completing the order of finish.
Espinoza was a late substitute on Tonito M. for Rafael Bejarano, who was sent to Huntington Memorial Hospital after being injured when his mount, Gameboy Luke, broke down a couple of races earlier on the card. There was no immediate word on the condition of Bejarano, a perennial leading rider in Southern California. Gameboy Luke was euthanized.
Besides Uh Oh Bango, Top Fortitude's dam French Debutante also produced multiple graded stakes-placed and multiple stakes-winning Ez Dreamer, who banked $533,948, and multiple stakes-winning filly Top Debutante. Uh Oh Bango developed into one of the better older handicap horses on the Southern California circuit, winning multiple stakes including the 2012 San Pasqual (gr. II), and finishing third in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). He earned nearly $700,000 in his racing career and now stands at E. A. Ranches in Santa Ysabel, Calif.