Crown of Thorns, owned by B. Wayne Hughes, appears to give trainer Richard Mandella another notable option for this year's Triple Crown trail. The Hall of Fame conditioner already has CashCall Futurity (gr. I) winner Into Mischief nearing his 3-year-old debut, as well as Dixie Chatter, sidelined since capturing the Norfolk (gr. II) last fall but returning to action.
The 3-year-old son of 2002 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Repent beat just four rivals in the Lewis, but it was the way he did it that caught the eye. Victor Espinoza settled Crown of Thorns after the colt pulled early to challenge the pacesetter Meal Penalty and Coast Guard through moderate fractions. On the final turn of the 1 1/16-mile test, Crown of Thorns, racing on the inside, was crying out for room. He found it along the rail as Meal Penalty came out a bit. Crown of Thorns took the lead with a burst near the quarter pole.
Coast Guard, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, wasn't done yet while racing three wide into the stretch. But Crown of Thorns responded to a couple of cracks of the whip from Espinoza at the top of the lane and gained command mid-stretch. The bay tallied under a brisk hand ride in the final furlong, completing the distance in 1:40.76 over Cushion Track.
“This horse does everything right," said Espinoza, who has ridden Crown of Thorns in all of the colt's starts. "There was just a little opening, and we got lucky and got through. I was a little worried about using him early, so when we made the lead, I just sat still on him. This horse is getting better with every race, and he can do anything. I really think we could put him on the lead and win that way too.”
Coast Guard was a clear second by 3 3/4 lengths and the Japanese-bred Reflect Times held off Indian Sun by a head for third. After setting posted fractions of :23.32, :47.85 and 1:14.58, Meal Penalty withered in the stretch and finished last.
Crown of Thorns was making just his third start for Mandella and his first since a seven-length romp in a seven-furlong maiden test on the Santa Anita main track Jan. 1. He debuted with a green effort at Hollywood Park three weeks earlier, finishing fifth. Crown of Thorns earned $120,000 for the Lewis win.
"This was pretty convincing, but he was pretty convincing in his maiden race the other day," Mandella said.
Mandella said Crown of Thorns could come back in the 1 1/8-mile Sham (gr. III), worth $200,000 on March 1, with the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at nine furlongs on April 5 down the road.
Clover Leaf Farms II bred Crown of Thorns, who is out of the Thunder Gulch mare Crowning Touch, in Florida. Crown of Thorns was a $300,000 buy as a 2-year-old at the Ocala Breeders' Sale last March.
The winner, sent off at 17-10 odds, carried 115 pounds and paid $5.40, $3.40, and $2.60. Amerman Racing's Coast Guard, the only two-turn winner in the field, returned $4 and $2.80. Reflect Times, ridden by Mike Smith for trainer John Shirreffs, lost for the first time in three starts and was $2.80 to show.