Bob Baffert has been waiting more than a year for Ventana to return to his winning ways, and the 5-year-old finally did May 21 at Pimlico Race Course when he outdueled longshot Immortal Eyes to score the $100,000 Maryland Sprint Handicap (gr. III) (VIDEO) on the Preakness undercard.
Owned by Karl Watson, Michael Pegram, and Paul Weitman, the son of Toccet broke a four-race losing streak with a hard-fought neck triumph. His last victory had been in the Potrero Grande Handicap (gr. II) on the Santa Anita synthetic surface in April 2010.
Martin Garcia guided Ventana to victory, covering six furlongs in 1:09.88 on a fast track. They had to survive a jockey objection and stewards’ inquiry before being named the official winner, as there was minor contact with Immortal Eyes in deep stretch.
"I think the other horse and I were pretty close, but I corrected it right away," Garcia said. "It looked like I had contact, but I really didn’t. It’s been a while since I won on him, so it felt good.”
The winner was bred in Kentucky Joe Mulholland Sr., Joe Mulholland Jr., John Mulholland, and Karen Mulholland. He is out of the Polish Number mare Full Figure.
Ventana broke well from post 5 and followed Delong Road through a :22.84 opening quarter before taking the lead. After running a half-mile in :45.75, he held a narrow lead at the top of the stretch. But Immortal Eyes and Travis Dunkelberger, who were never far off the pace, loomed a major threat. The rivals dueled through the length of the stretch with Ventana always holding a narrow advantage. After the two brushed, Garcia switched to his right hand with the whip and Ventana charged home. He held on gamely even though Garcia dropped his stick shortly before the finish.
Immortal Eyes, sent off at 20-1 despite setting the 4 1/2-furlong track record at Charles Town last month, settled for second, with China and John Velazquez 5 1/4 lengths back in third.
Ventana, third last out when failing to repeat in the Potrero Grande, improved to 4-4-3 from 19 lifetime starts.
“California sprinters are pretty tough," Baffert said. "I’ve got to move them around. I thought it would be a good fit for him to come here. It was a last-minute thing to bring him here. I nominate my horses everywhere and when I see one working well, boom, away we go. I made it a few days ago before the plane left. He’s been working well and there really was nothing in California. I’m trying to spread these horses out. We thought it was a good spot for him and it was. And he ran fast. I:09 4/5 is fast here.
The winner paid $5.20, $3.40, and $2.80 as the favorite in a field of nine. Immortal Eyes returned $13.60 and $6, and completed a $91.80 exacta (5-6) while China paid $3 to show.