Ron the Greek and Jose Lezcano go west to win the Santa Anita Handicap.

Ron the Greek and Jose Lezcano go west to win the Santa Anita Handicap.

Benoit Photo

Mott Invader Ron the Greek Rolls in Big 'Cap

Son of Full Mandate overcomes traffic to register impressive tally at Santa Anita.

Trainer Bill Mott's team swooped into Southern California with Ron the Greek to snare the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in convincing style March 3 (VIDEO).

The 3 1/2-length triumph was the first graded stakes win in more than two years for the 5-year-old son of Full Mandate owned by Jack T. Hammer, Nils Brous, and Adam Wachtel.

The big-striding bay, ridden by Jose Lezcano, lost ground on the far turn when he was hemmed inside behind traffic by jockey Victor Espinoza aboard Setsuko. But Ron the Greek would re-gather himself to rally impressivley in the lane, sweeping past Setsuko in the middle of the track to score easily as the 7-2 third choice.

“I didn’t want to be on the inside so I had to use him the whole way to make him keep going," Lezcano said. "At the half-mile pole I had a lot of horse, but I had to keep asking my horse. My horse is like a bicycle, you keep asking and he will keep running."

Setsuko, who had taken the lead  in the stretch, settled for second with the belatedly closing Uh Oh Bango, ridden by Mike Smith, rallying from last after six furlongs to finish third. Strub Stakes (gr. II) winner Ultimate Eagle, the 120-pound high weight and 2-1 favorite in the field of 13, faded in the stretch to finish 10th after being cooked on a fast pace.

The final time for the 1 1/4-mile Big 'Cap was 2:00.41 on a fast track.

Ron the Greek, who has been training at Payson Park Training Center in Florida, was coming off a fine second behind Mucho Macho Man  in his first start of the year, the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 28. That effort helped convince Mott, a Hall of Fame conditioner who won the 2011 Eclipse Award as the nation's top trainer, that he was ready to make the cross-country trip.

Winner of the 2010 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds more than two years ago, Ron the Greek was at one time considered a Triple Crown contender for trainer Tom Amoss. Those hopes did not pan out but Ron the Greek now emerges as one of the leading handicap horses in the nation.

Hammer bred Ron the Greek, who is out of Flambe, by Fortunate Prospect, in Florida. He said he sold part of the horse to Wachtel last year.

Ultimate Eagle, who wired the Strub by 7 1/4 lengths Feb. 4, was under pressure fom the start as he took the early lead from Gladding  and attempted to show them his heels all the way once again. Fractions were sizzling for the distance, :22.26, :44.55, and 1:09.08, but he couldn't shake Gladding. Ultimate Eagle finally opened up on Gladding at the quarter pole after completing a mile in 1:34.14 but the challengers were lining up as they left the final turn.

Thirtyfirststeet, advancing along the inside attempted to get by Ultimate Eagle at the top of the stretch but was bumped by the weakening leader into the rail. On the outside, Setsuko bid for the lead for Espinoza and after getting the advantage, fought back as Ron the Greek came on. Ron the Greek, in the clear on the far outside, hit the front just before the furlong pole and drew clear under urging from Lezcano in the final sixteenth.

Mott was not in attendance. His assistant, Rodolphe Brisset, said they just wanted Ron the Greek to stalk what they figured would be a hot pace.

"We did not expect :44 (:44.55 for a half mile) on the lead," he said. "That’s sprinting. (Lezcano) did very good to make a move on the backside and give him a little break on the turn and he just came running again, so it was a very good race.”

Michael Pender, trainer of Ultimate Eagle, lamented the fast pace.

"It’s literally impossible" to handle those sort of fractions, he said, "unless you’re Secretariat.”

Setsuko, who was second by a nose to Game On Dude in last year's Big 'Cap, held on tenaciously for second by a half-length over San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) winner Uh Oh Bango. Holladay Road also rallied well to get the fourth spot. He was followed by Norvsky, Boxeur des Rues, Twice the Appeal, Thirtyfirststreet, Fiddlers Afleet, Ultimate Eagle, Gladding, Prayer for Relief , and Victory Pete.

Ron the Greek earned $450,000 for the victory, boosting his career bankroll to $769,665. His career mark stands at 6-3-1 in 17 races.

He carried 116 pounds and paid $9.20, $4.40, and $3.40. Second choice Setsuko, attempting to give trainer Richard Mandella his fourth Santa Anita Handicap victory, returned $3.60 and $2.80. The exacta was worth $39.80. Uh Oh Bango, an Arizona-bred trained by Kory Owens, paid $6.60 to show.

“He ran a good race," Mandella said of the runner-up. "There wasn’t much question. The winner was just too good.”