The Bob Baffert trained Air Commander has always been well thought of. He missed eight months of action last year following a second-place finish as the 6-5 choice in the San Felipe (gr. II), although there was nothing really wrong. The son of Point Given , co-bred and owned by Robert N. Clay, just needed time to grow up, Baffert said.
"We freshened him up and brought him back with with a couple of outings, and he needed those outings," Baffert said. "He was really training exceptionally well for this race.
"Last year, he was just a big clown. He was all over the track. He's finally got it together."
How close was this one? Both jockeys, Aaron Gryder on Air Commander and David Flores on Johnny Eves, thought the runner-up won. Air Commander took the lead from the Malibu (gr. I) winner at the sixteenth pole, but Johnny Eves—fighting back on the inside—appeared to have the edge in the final couple of strides. However, the final photo had Air Commander in front by an inch on the head bob.
"I had a feeling he got the bob on me," Gryder said. "After the finish, I congratulated David, and he said, 'Thanks,' so I'm sure he thought he won, too."
The final time for the 1 1/16-mile test for 4-year-olds was a 1:40.16 on a blazing Cushion Track racing surface. The San Fernando is a $200,000 race.
Tiago, the 3-2 favorite in the 11-horse field, finished third.
The payoffs were huge, with Air Commander paying $106.80, $28, and $10.60 to win and topping a $611.60 exacta with Johnny Eves. The latter was seeking to win the second leg of the Strub series after taking the first, the seven-furlong Malibu, by one length on Dec. 26. A $1 trifecta returned $1,460.40.
Johnny Eves hustled to the lead for Flores with Air Commander tracking in second through fractions of :23.27, :46.38 and 1:10.04. When Air Commander made his bid on the outside to get the lead briefly, Johnny Eves refused to give way in the final sixteenth and the pair battled to the wire. Tiago, ridden in mid-pack by Mike Smith most of the way, came under strong pressure through the lane as he tried desperately to catch the leaders, but had to settle for third, 1 1/4 lengths behind. Ravel, rallying mildly for jockey Garrett Gomez, wound up fourth, another 1 1/4 lengths back.
Air Commander, co-owned by Faisal Salman, had two fourth-place finishes in his comeback races at Hollywood Park. The victory in the San Fernando, his third in eight starts, nearly doubled his earnings to $248,680. Air Commander's last win came in an allowance race at Santa Anita two weeks prior to the San Felipe.
Gryder rode Air Commander for the first time since the colt's fifth-place debut finish on Santa Anita's conventional dirt track in October 2006.
"Bob told me to just let him run free and he'll run big today, and he was right," Gryder said. "He's big strong galloping horse. I knew he had a big job to overtake Johnny Eves, and it was just a great race."
Clay and Fair Way Equine bred the bay colt Air Commander, who is out of the Star de Naskra mare Santaria, in Kentucky.
The winner carried 116 pounds, six less than high-weighted Tiago.
The sharp sprinter Johnny Eves, making his first start around two turns since his debut maiden race in April, nearly got the job done for trainer Jay Robbins, returning $7.40 and $2.60. The two-time grade I winner Tiago was $2.60 to show.
Ravel was followed by Sahara Heat, Great Hunter, Monzante, Hurry Up Austin, Smooth and Savvy, Frank the Barber, and Big Bad Leroybrown. Monterey Jazz scratched.