Trainer Bob Baffert scratched two of his three entrants in the $300,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) at Del Mar Aug. 28, but the only one he needed was El Brujo, who went gate-to-wire to give the Hall of Fame conditioner his second grade I win of the day.
An hour earlier, the Baffert-trained Richard's Kid captured the $1 million Pacific Classic Presented by TVG (gr. I). Baffert, though, was in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and was not present for his first two stakes wins of the Del Mar meet.
With Joel Rosario aboard, El Brujo, owned by Arnold Zetcher, scored his first grade I victory by a half-length. The 4-year-old Candy Ride gelding completed the seven-furlong distance in a swift Polytrack time of 1:21.70, slightly off the track mark of 1:21.17 established by Lewis Michael in the 2008 renewal of the Pat O'Brien.
"I didn't think I'd be on the lead, but he broke like a shot and I just let him go on with it," Rosario said. "He's a long strider; a real big horse and a long strider. Even when we turned for home and the other horses came to him, I knew he wasn't going to stop. He just kept on going."
The win was Rosario's fourth of five tallies on the day, moving him past Rafael Bejarano with 42 victories.
"Oh, I like that. I like being leading rider," Rosario said. "Me and Rafael. We're going right down to the finish. Head and head. Neck and neck. It is going to be fun."
Crown of Thorns, in his first start since his powerful runner-up effort in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), ran second, with 13-10 favorite Smiling Tiger a fading third, 4 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
With the win, El Brujo has earned a date in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.
Baffert had earlier scratched Sangaree and E Z's Gentleman and Tropic Storm was also withdrawn by trainer Craig Dollase, leaving a field of seven.
Breaking from the far outside, El Brujo shot to the lead leaving the gate and cleared Smiling Tiger and Kanan Dume before leaving the chute. Rosario angled him over to the inside and El Brujo took command down the backstretch.
Kanan Dume raced in second with Smiling Tiger on the outside third as El Brujo showed the way through quarter-mile splits of :22.83 and :45.48. Smiling Tiger, the Bing Crosby Stakes (gr. I) winner ridden by Victor Espinoza, advanced into second on the turn as Kanan Dume dropped back.
Crown of Thorns rallied impressively on the outside coming out of the bend for Rafael Bejarano, overtaking Smiling Tiger past the eighth pole and taking aim at El Brujo, who had opened up a three-length advantage. Crown of Thorns continued to close willingly on El Brujo, who was drifting out late, but ran out of time before the wire.
"My horse gave me a big kick at the end, but nobody ran with the winner, and he never stopped running," Bejarano said. "We couldn't catch up."
El Brujo was making his second start for Baffert, finishing fourth in the Bing Crosby Aug. 1, 5 1/2 lengths behind Smiling Tiger. Baffert ran him in blinkers that day and took the hood off this time. This was El Brujo's first triumph in four starts in 2010.
"When you send them to the gate, you never know how things are going to turn out," said Jim Barnes, assistant to Baffert. "If you get a flyer out of the gate, you don't want to take him back. You have to let him go and get comfortable and do the best you can with the situation. It worked out for us today."
A Polytrack specialist, Ontario-bred El Brujo previously raced for his breeder, Windways Farm, and trainer Malcolm Pierce mostly at Woodbine. He won the Kentucky Cup Sprint (gr. III) at Turfway Park and Keeneland's Perryville Stakes (gr. III) in back-to-back races last year, however.
El Brujo, out of Enchanted Spell (by Devil's Bag), earned $180,000 for the victory, his seventh in 18 lifetime starts, to boost his bankroll to $721,439.
Sent off as the third choice, El Brujo paid $9.60, $3.80, and $2.80 and keyed a $30.20 exacta. Crown of Thorns returned $3.40 and $2.40. Smiling Tiger was $2.20 to show.
Leaving New York finished fourth, followed by Hard Bill, New Bay, and Kanan Dume.
Baffert won the Pat O'Brien for the fourth time in 25 runnings. His previous wins came with Love That Red in 2000, El Corredor in 2001, and Zensational last year.