Weather played an unexpected role when turf standout Gio Ponti won the Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. III), a race transferred from the grass to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride racing surface due to slick conditions on opening day of the Santa Anita meet Dec. 26. Given a freshening since then, the 4-year-old Tale of the Cat colt takes the next step on the main track in the $250,000 Strub Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 7.
One of four graded events on the Santa Anita program, the tradition-rich Strub must share top billing this year with the seasonal bow of champion filly Stardom Bound in the $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) and Pioneerof the Nile 's anxiously awaited 3-year-old debut in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II). The $100,000 Thunder Road Handicap (gr. IIIT) for older turf horses is also on the card.
But the 1 1/8-mile Strub, with 13 entrants, should be the best betting race of the bunch. In addition to Gio Ponti, the field of 4-year-olds includes San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) winner Cowboy Cal and San Fernando Stakes (gr. II) victor Nownownow, as well as several other upset candidates.
Gio Ponti will carry high weight of 123 pounds in the deep Strub field. The multiple grade-winning colt tops the competitors in earnings with $820,800 for Castleton Lyons from a 5-2-0 mark in nine starts. Garrett Gomez rides for trainer Christophe Clement. Gio Ponti's victory in the one-mile Sir Beaufort, in which he rallied from ninth on the backstretch, was his first on a surface other than turf.
“He’s a very talented horse,” Gomez said following the Sir Beaufort, “and sometimes talented horses can run on anything.”
Gio Ponti could be headed for the March 7 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) with a strong performance in the Strub.
“I don’t know if that was a blessing in disguise,” said Nicholas Bachalard, West Coast assistant to Clement, talking about the Sir Beaufort win. “We’ll know on Saturday. The horse has come back well from his workouts, and he’s going into the race in perfect shape.”
The added furlong should not be a concern, said Bachalard, noting that the bay won the Virginia Derby (gr. IIT) at 10 furlongs over the Colonial Downs grass last summer.
“I don’t think it should be too hard for him,” Bachalard said. “He’s pretty versatile. He’s run every distance, but his best distance might be from a mile to a mile and an eighth. The horse is doing really good, and I’m looking for a good effort from him.”
Nownownow, sent off at odds of 18-1 in the San Fernando, responded with a devastating 2 3/4-length win while racing in blinkers for the first time. Joe Talamo will be back aboard as will the blinkers. Winner of the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in 2007, Nownownow had missed considerable time and suffered six consecutive setbacks before his score in the San Fernando, the second leg of the Strub series.
Trained by Patrick Biancone for Fab Oak Stable, the son of Whywhywhy has posted a 3-3-1 record in 13 starts for earnings of $775,599.
Cowboy Cal, from the barn of Todd Pletcher, has finished first or second eight times, winning five, during a 10-race career that has earned $597,708 for Robert and Janice McNair. His only off-the-board finishes came in his debut and in the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), when he finished ninth. Cowboy Cal is another versatile type, having won three of six on grass. The son of Giant's Causeway has back-to-back wins on synthetic surfaces as well.
John Velazquez rides Cowboy Cal, who is weighted at 121 pounds along with Nownownow.
Two-time stakes winner Slew's Tiznow looks to rebound for trainer Doug O'Neill after finishing fourth, five lengths behind Nownownow, as the favorite in the San Fernando. Jockey Rafael Bejarano retains the mount on the son of Tiznow .
The New York-bred Wishful Tomcat, winner of the Discovery Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct Nov. 22, exits a third-place finish in the San Fernando in his first start on the West Coast for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Also switching coasts -- and racing surfaces -- is the grade II winner Wesley, who made up much ground in the stretch run of the Ft. Lauderdale Stakes on the Gulfstream Park grass Jan. 10. The Mark Hennig trainee, a son of El Prado, rallied from last of 11 to finish fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Ft. Lauderdale and was beaten by three parts of a length by Kiss the Kid. Wesley won the Hall of Fame Stakes (gr. IIT) at Saratoga Aug. 4.
Medjool, who finished second to Gio Ponti in the Sir Beaufort, gets a rider switch to Alex Solis. Julio Canani trains the Monarchos colt who is seeking his first stakes victory.
Blue Exit, a Kentucky-bred Pulpit colt who raced in France until this past fall, woke up in his third United States start for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. He scored by three lengths over a Jan. 22 optional claiming allowance field at Santa Anita going 1 1/16 miles.
$250,000 Strub Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, 4:38 p.m.), 4-Year-Olds, 1 1/8 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Dixie Chatter (KY), 117, Tyler Baze
2. Blue Exit (KY), 117, Mike E. Smith
3. Trevor's Clever (FL), 117, Michael C. Baze
4. Victory Pete (FL), 117, Chantal Sutherland
5. Gio Ponti (KY), 123, Garrett K. Gomez
6. Medjool (KY), 117, Alex O. Solis
7. Nownownow (KY), 121, Joseph Talamo
8. Cowboy Cal (KY), 121, John R. Velazquez
9. Wishful Tomcat (NY), 119, Joel Rosario
10. Cause (KY), 117, Martin Garcia
11. Cherokee Artist (KY), 117, Jose Valdivia, Jr.
12. Wesley (KY), 119, Javier Castellano
13. Slew's Tiznow (KY), 119, Rafael Bejarano