Trainer Ron Ellis could have something special in Mr Gruff, who sped away from the field leaving the hillside as the odds-on choice and dashed to an impressive repeat victory by 2 1/4 lengths in the $100,000 San Simeon Handicap (gr. IIIT) (VIDEO) on the Santa Anita turf April 17.
Mr Gruff, owned by Gary Broad, had raced just once since winning last year's San Simeon, taking an optional claiming allowance heat on the hillside turf course by 2 3/4 lengths on March 19.
The 6-year-old son of Mr. Greeley has raced just eight times in his career but has developed into a monster over the hillside course, winning five of six tries over the layout since January 2009.
“It was just his back," Ellis said of Mr Gruff's 11-month absence. "Actually, I thought he was good enough down the hill to be able to run in the Breeders’ Cup (Turf Sprint) last year, and when he won the (2009) San Simeon I just gave him some time off. When I brought him back, he kind of strained his back and we sent him to Gary Broad’s farm in Oakmont and they fixed him up and sent him back 110%.”
The winning time for the about 6 1/2-furlong distance was 1:11.53 over a firm course, two-fifths of a second off the course mark of 1:11.13 established by Lennyfromalibu in 2004.
The speedy Mr Gruff figured to get the lead out of the gate with jockey Joel Rosario, but instead, it was Trumpet Player Jay, the longest shot on the board at 58-1, who bounced quickly to the front for Martin Garcia and opened a three-length lead. Mr Gruff steadily cut into the advantage, however, and after an opening quarter-mile in :22.52, Mr Gruff grabbed the lead along the inside.
He turned in a quick second quarter (:21.46), clocking :43.98 for the half, and was in full control leaving the turn. Victor's Cry, emerging from between horses under Corey Nakatani, took over second in the lane but never threatened Mr Gruff, who was two lengths clear under steady handling from Rosario by mid-stretch. Mr Gruff got one light tap of the whip in the final eighth to keep his mind on business.
"I let the other horses on the outside go for a little while, then after that I took the lead," Rosario said. "He’s running good, and he’s a nice horse.”
Victor's Cry held second by three-quarters of a length over grade I winner Ever a Friend, the second choice in the field of seven. Ever a Friend didn't have the best of trips under Tyler Baze after being carried wide into the stretch and he ran on late for third. Canonize, a second entrant by Ellis, finished fourth in his first turf race, a half-length behind Ever a Friend.
Bred by Robert Spiegel in Kentucky, Mr Gruff is out of Ruff, by Clever Trick. The dark bay gelding improved his career mark to 5-2-0 with earnings of $226,600. His only out-of-the-money effort came in a fourth-place finish in his maiden debut on the synthetic main track at Santa Anita in February 2008.
Ellis credited Rosario with a good ride. "The horse broke a little flat-footed," he said. "He didn’t rush him and just kind of let him ease his way up there. It all went as planned after that.”
Ellis said he wants to stretch Mr Gruff out and noted his dam was a graded stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles. “We’re probably going to look at the Shoemaker Mile (gr. IT)" at Hollywood Park on May 31, he said.
Mr Gruff carried 118 pounds and paid $3.60, $2.60 and $2.20 while keying a $29.20 exacta. Victor's Cry, fourth in the off-the-turf Joe Hernandez Stakes for trainer Eoin Harty in his most recent start, returned $6 and $3.80. The 7-year-old Ever a Friend, trying to regain the form that saw him win the 2008 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap (gr. IT), was $2.60 to show as the 120-pound top weight.
Canonize was followed by Cherokee Heaven, Trumpet Player Jay and Tiz West. Noble Court was scratched by trainer John Sadler.