Johnny Eves and jockey Garrett Gomez got the jump on their six rivals in the $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO) and never looked back, cruising to a 1 3/4-length victory at Santa Anita Jan. 25.
The winning 5-year-old California-bred was eased in his last start, the El Conejo Handicap (gr. III) Jan. 1, but the grade I winner looked like his old self this time. After establishing a more moderate pace, Johnny Eaves spurted away to a 2 1/2-length lead leaving the eighth pole and held sway over favored Devoted Magic, who edged Halo Najib for second by three-quarters of a length. The six-furlong test over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride racing surface was completed in 1:08.56.
"I can't explain his last race," said Jay Robbins, who trains the son of Skimming for Carl and Sharon Hilliard's Mooncoin, who bred him from the mare Capote's Halo, by Capote. "He bled an insignificant amount, really. I don't know what happened. He wasn't as keyed up today."
Robbins said the easier fractions this time also had to help.
Johny Eves bounced quickly out of the starting gate and was in command while Six Pack Abs and Talkin to Mom Roo tried to keep up through fractions of :22.23 and :45.02. The stalkers Devoted Magic, ridden by Joe Talamo, and Halo Najib, with Rafael Bejarano aboard, moved into contention on the outside at the top of the lane. But they were unable to make an impression on Johnny Eaves, who bounded away from his rivals with slight urging and under a long hold from Gomez in the final furlong.
"He was traveling better today," Gomez said. "He was in more of a comfort zone. He’s very fast from the gate, but he really doesn’t want to go (quarter mile splits of) 21, 44. Today, the pace was better for him, and he showed some versatility."
Johnny Eves won the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) over 3-year-olds to end the 2007 season but lost seven straight races before tallying by one length in the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes (gr. III) at Hollywood Park Nov. 22. That race preceded the El Conejo fiasco.
The bay gelding won for the seventh time in 20 lifetime starts and boosted his earnings to $581,120. The Palos Verdes victory was worth $90,000. Robbins said he's not sure what race is next for Johnny Eves.
"We'll just relish this one," he said.
Sent off as the second choice, Johnny Eves paid $7.20, $3.60 and $2.80, topping a $2 exacta of $25.20. Devoted Magic returned $3.40 and $2.40. Halo Najib was $4.40 to show.
Trained and owned in part by Jerry Hollendorfer, Devoted Magic was something of a surprise favorite. The 5-year-old California-bred gelding has just one win outside of the claiming ranks, that coming in a 6 3/4-length win over a first-level allowance field in his last start Jan. 7 at Santa Anita.
Halo Najib, a Triple Crown contender last spring who had not raced since Aug. 1, turned in a good effort in his first start for trainer Mike Mitchell.
Six Pack Abs, Big Bad Leroybrown, Principle Secret and Talkin to Mom Roo completed the order. Machismo scratched.