Front-running Cowboy Cal, one of the few horses that Robert and Janice McNair kept after they sold Stonerside Stable to Darley last year, nipped 28-1 shot Informed by a hard-fought nose to win the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Santa Anita Jan. 10.
Cowboy Cal drifted out under left-handed urging from jockey John Velazquez in the final sixteenth of a mile. Informed, who got rolling late on the far outside under Michael Baze, appeared to head his rival near the furlong pole, but Cowboy Cal, on the inside while floating out, gamely persevered under strong encouragement from Velazquez to post an exciting win.
Stewards reviewed the stretch run when Aaron Gryder, the rider of favored Well Armed, complained that Cowboy Cal had caused interference and cost Well Armed, who finished fourth after taking up in the lane, a top-three finish. Well Armed was edged by Magnum by a neck for the show spot. However, the stewards ruled that the winner was clear of Well Armed when the 3-2 choice steadied.
The versatile 4-year-old Cowboy Cal, coming off a tough-luck second-place finish to Court Vision in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) on grass Nov. 30, picked up his first victory for trainer Todd Pletcher on a synthetic track. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile journey over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface was 1:41.26.
Cowboy Cal quickly took the lead from Ball Four on his outside, heading into the clubhouse turn and established the pace through quick early fractions of :23.25 and :46.20. He led a field that was well strung out down the backstretch. Cowboy Cal, with Ball Four continuing to press into the turn, went six furlongs in 1:10.25 as the stalking Past the Point, along the rail, and Well Armed, on the outside, moved into contention. Instead, it was the outsider Informed, angled to the grandstand side coming out of the turn by Baze, who proved the biggest danger in a terrific stretch run.
Velazquez, who is the regular rider of Cowboy Cal, said his mount was a handful going into the first turn but somehow had enough left in the tank to get the win.
“I wanted to sit just off the speed, but when I took a hold of him going to the first turn, he took off," Velazquez said. "I thought I’d be able to get him to rate, but he was very difficult to settle. On the backside I was able to get him to relax and when they came to him at the top of the stretch, I had a lot of horse. It seemed like he waited on the other horses but when he got into the competition, he fought back.”
Cowboy Cal, a homebred named for the McNairs' son, is by Giant's Causeway --Texas Tammy, by Seeking the Gold. Cowboy Cal captured the Laurel Futurity on the turf as a 2-year-old, then started his sophomore campaign with a victory in the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) on the grass at Calder Race Course Jan. 1.
The dark bay colt turned in a game second in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) over Keeneland's Polytrack surface April 12, his only start on a synthetic course before the San Pasqual. That led to a start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), in which the pace-pressing Cowboy Cal tired to ninth, 15 3/4 lengths behind Big Brown.
Following a break, Cowboy Cal was switched back to the grass for the remainder of his sophomore campaign. He finished second in Keeneland's Bryan Station (gr. IIIT) before winning on a disqualification, leading to the Hollywood Derby, where he was beaten by three-quarters of a length.
“The horse is basically a half-length from being a two-time grade I winner," said Michael McCarthy, Pletcher's West Coast assistant. "Both those races (the Blue Grass and the Hollywood Derby) were tough beats and stung a little bit, but he’s a very good horse in his own right.”
McCarthy said the $250,000 Strub (gr. II) on Feb. 7 would likely be next for Cowboy Cal. A shot at the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap March 7 also is in the plans, he said.
Cowboy Cal has won five of 10 starts with three seconds while earning $597,708. The San Pasqual victory was worth $90,000.
Facing older horses for the first time, Cowboy Cal was sent off as the second choice while carrying 117 pounds, four fewer than the high-weight Well Armed. The winner paid $7.60, $5.20 and $3.60.
Informed, making just his second stakes start for trainer Doug O'Neill, turned in a powerful performance to return $22.80 and $12.20 while completing a $2 exacta worth $181.80. Magnum, a graded stakes winner starting a comeback for trainer Darrell Vienna, was $12 to show as the longest shot in the field at odds of 77-1.
Well Armed was seeking to rebound from a ninth-place finish as the choice in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last time out. He was followed by Mostacolli Mort, Racketeer, Past the Point, Marchfield and Ball Four. There were three scratches -- Noble Court, Blue Exit and Slew's Tizzy.