Jockey Garrett Gomez boldly announced his return to action with a come-from-behind victory aboard 8-1 shot Dice Flavor in a dramatic finish to the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap (gr. IIT) on the grass Aug. 10 at Del Mar (VIDEO).
Reserved at the rear off a fast early pace set by Rosengold, Dice Flavor launched his winning bid coming off the final turn and caught Den's Legacy in the last strides for a half-length victory. Final time for the 1 1/16-mile La Jolla, a major prep for the Sept. 1 Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT), was 1:39.82 over a firm turf course. Pure Loyalty finished third, while 5-2 favorite Freakin Rocket was off the board.
Gomez was cleared by stewards to ride Saturday for the first time since July 14 after testing at baseline levels for antidepressant medication he's been taking and getting a doctor's approval to resume competition. He was fined after missing days at Betfair Hollywood Park and the opening week at Del Mar. In his first race back, the two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider finished second in the second race aboard Southern Sunshine.
Traffic problems on the tight Del Mar course prevented an earlier move on Dice Flavor, said Gomez, who received a notable round of applause from the crowd as he returned to the winner's circle.
"I wanted to come out with him at the five-sixteenths (pole), but I had to wait," he said. "I knew he had that good late turn of foot, so it was OK. Then when we got out, he quickened."
"This is special," Gomez said of the recent turmoil in his personal life, which included a bout with his alcoholism and the break-up of his marriage. "It eases some of the pain. I'm so happy to be back. And I'm so glad the fans were so supportive. This is a very special moment."
Dice Flavor, who broke his maiden on the Hollywood Park lawn in December, returned to the grass for the first time in the La Jolla since winning the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) over the Tapeta main track at Golden Gate Fields Feb. 16. Trained by Paddy Gallagher, the 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy went to Dubai for the UAE Derby (UAE-II) March 30 but experienced physical problems while there and ran poorly, finishing eighth.
Given two months off to recover, Dice Flavor was fourth in Hollywood's Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) June 2 prior to a third-place effort in the four-horse Swaps Stakes (gr. II) in his most recent start July 4.
Bred in Kentucky by Paget Bloodstock, Nearctic Bloodstock, and Carhue Investments, Dice Flavor is owned by Oda Racing Stable and US Equine. The chestnut colt is out of the Afleet mare Afleet Summer and is a half brother to multiple graded stakes winner Swift Warrior.
"(Dice Flavor) worked well on the grass here, seemed like better each time," noted Gallagher, who said Dice Flavor would be pointed to the Del Mar Derby. "The race set up nice for him and Garrett did a good job riding him. He's run on the turf and synthetic and when he gets a pace to run at he usually shows up. I'm glad he showed up today."
Dice Flavor fetched $80,000 at the Keeneland September yearling in 2011 from Windmill Manor through James Keogh, agent. He then sold for $100,000 at Barretts as a 2-year-old in May 2012 from Stephens Thoroughbreds, agent, to Nobuo Oda.
The winner was reserved off the pace in eighth as Rosengold, taking advantage of a rail set out 14 feet, sped to the lead and opened up by as many as four lengths while clipping off speedy quarter mile fractions of :22.99, :45.81, and 1:09.58. Rosengold would give way shortly after that as Den's Legacy, racing second for Corey Nakatani, took over for the stretch drive and opened up on the field by 1 1/2 lengths when the stalking Freakin Rocket faded.
Dice Flavor, kicking into top gear for Gomez at the top of the lane, was still eighth at the furlong mark. But he found a seam between horses to reach contention inside the sixteenth pole and got up just in time on the far outside for Gomez, who pumped his arm in the air just past the finish line and exhorted the big Del Mar crowd.
The unlucky Den's Legacy, rebounding from a sixth-place finish in a division of the opening-day Oceanside Stakes, held second by a neck over Pure Loyalty, who also made a big late run for Rafael Bejarano.
"He ran a terrific race," Nakatani said of the runner-up. "I knew they were going fast, but we wanted to put him in the race and that's what we did. He responded well; did everything right. Just didn't get that bob at the end."
Dry Summer was fourth, followed by Si Sage, Uno Dos Adios, Freakin Rocket, Greeley Awesome, and Rosengold.
Dice Favor's third win from nine lifetime efforts was worth $90,000, extending his earnings to $274,500.
He carried 120 pounds and paid $19.80, $9.20, and $5.40 as the seventh choice in the field of nine. He topped a $157.40 exacta with Den's Legacy, who returned $9.60 and $5.80. Pure Loyalty paid $5.60 to show.