A 7-year-old Danehill ridgling, Artiste Royal dueled with Lava Man and Mr. Wolverine through most of the stretch, then had just enough to hold off late-charging Monzante at the wire in a thrilling finish. The final time for 10 furlongs on the firm turf was 1:59.99.
Owned by David and Jill Heerensperger, Artiste Royal was bred in Ireland, but raced in Japan and France before coming to states last summer. He's been in the money in 10 of 13 starts since coming to trainer Neil Drysdale, but only managed to hit the winner’s circle once, that coming last October in the Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship (gr. IT) at Santa Anita. Most recently, he was third by two lengths to Einstein in the May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs.
Going off as the 3-1 second choice, Artiste Royal was near the back of the field of seven in the early going, content to let Lava Man set the pace. Ridden by Tyler Baze, Lava Man was atypically on the lead, while Plug Me In and Mr. Wolverine pressed through fractions of :24.72, :48.05, and 1:11.75. Artiste Royal moved into fourth as they rounded the turn. Odds-on favorite Champs Elysees trailed the field.
Lava Man was still going nicely as they came out of the turn and had a short at the top of the lane. But the 7-year-old Slew City Slew gelding was joined by Mr. Wolverine and shortly thereafter by Artiste Royal, who came three-wide out of the turn and split horses. Those three were noses apart at the sixteenth-pole, while Monzante was flying from the middle of the racetrack.
Lava Man was game until the end, but Artiste Royal had just enough at the wire. Joel Rosario and Monzante got up for second, a nose in front of Lava Man, who was attempting to win the Charles Whittingham for the second time. Mr. Wolverine was fourth.
"I just wanted to see what these guys were doing and where the favorite was," Flores said. "It looked like he was far back so I just tried to find my spot and look for a pocket to get in. My horse was just grinding and moving forward and it didn't look like anyone was coming flying. That made it just perfect for us.
"He's one of those horses who's been unlucky, but eventually it pays off. Neil is a great trainer and he got this horse exactly where he needs to be. It's a privilege to ride these kind of horses."
The winner paid $8.40, $5 and $3.60. The $2 exacta (2-1) with 13-1 Monzante returned $76.60, while the $1 trifecta (2-1-6) was $238.90 with 5-1 Lava Man.
Artiste Royal is out of the Manila mare Agathe. He was bred by Dayton Investments. The bay won for the sixth time in 25 starts and has now banked more than $770,000. His biggest win overseas was in 2005 when he scored in the La Coupe (Fra-III).
Despite the loss and having not won since last year's Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), Lava Man gave a terrific showing. After all, he carried a race-high 121 pounds.
"I've never had a horse that game before, literally," Tyler Baze said. "Michael's (Baze) horse (Mr. Wolverine) went by me, like by a good head, and as soon as he went by me Lava Man just dug back in and said 'the heck with you...you ain't going by me.' I haven't had a horse with this much heart, I couldn't believe it. That was a good feeling.
"The old boy's back. He was beaten less than a head for second, and maybe next time they'll even up the weights a little bit. He ran awesome."