Coming off the worst race of his career, Robert Bone's Choctaw Nation displayed all of his old late charge to annihilate the field in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) Sunday for his second straight victory in the stakes at Del Mar.
Louis Quatorze gelding recorded his first win since upsetting Pleasantly Perfect in last year's edition of the San Diego and went over the $1 million mark in career earnings in the process. The 8-5 favorite Sunday also stamped himself as one of the leading contenders for the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) on Aug. 21. Choctaw Nation ran fourth behind the winning Pleasantly Perfect in last year's 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic.Under Victor Espinoza, the Jeff Mullins-trained Choctaw Nation defeated Ace Blue by one length, stopping the clock in 1:42 2/5. Preachinatthebar finished third, 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner.As they customarily do, Espinoza and Choctaw Nation fell out behind the field to trail the pacesetting Keep On Punching and Bear in the Woods – who went a sensible speed – by about 10 lengths. Espinoza began to ask Choctaw Nation for a response on the far turn and Choctaw Nation responded, moving into contention while angling four wide coming into the stretch. Near the eighth pole, Espinoza gave the gelding a couple of measured left-handed cracks with his whip and Choctaw Nation took off. He hit the front inside the sixteenth pole and won while pulling away under a strong hand ride."I could tell they were going a little slow up there so I had my horse up a bit closer than I normally would," Espinoza said. "I wanted to be even farther back, but the way the race came up I used him a little bit early to stay in a good spot."Ace Blue, who lay close just behind the leaders for David Flores, edged up on the outside Bear in the Woods and Corey Nakatani in mid-stretch to challenge for the lead but they were unable to hold off the winner. Preachinatthebar, Mike Smith aboard, found room along the inside and proved difficult to deny for the place spot.Keep On Punching and Bear in the Woods exchanged the lead a couple of times while battling through early fractions of :23 4/5, :47 4/5 and 1:12 before the frontrunner wearied after they completed the mile in 1:36 1/5.Choctaw Nation had a four-race losing streak coming into the San Diego and won for the first time in four starts in 2005. After a superb third in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 26, Choctaw Nation threw in a fifth-place clunker – seven lengths behind the winning Lava Man – in the Californian (gr. II). The bay's dislike for the Hollywood Park surface was blamed and Mullins opted to skip the Hollywood God Cup (gr. I) July 9 in favor of the San Diego and a probable start in the Pacific Classic."He likes this track," Espinoza said. "He always does well here. In fact, he likes most tracks, except for Hollywood Park. His last race up there was a bad one, but it was because he didn't like the track at all. Even when I worked him in the mornings up there, he wouldn't put out. Something about that place that doesn't work for him. But he ran great today and when I asked him to fire he was all there."Mullins indicated he's like to try the Pacific Classic again."Obviously, we have to see how he comes out of the race and we're just going to take it one day at a time," he said, "but that's the next step."Claimed by Mullins for $40,000 out of his first start at Santa Anita in February 2004, Choctaw Nation earned $150,000 for his sixth win in 10 lifetime starts and pushed his earnings to $1,065,800.Loch Lea Fartm Inc bred the winner, who is out of the Well Decorated mare Melisma, in Kentucky. Choctaw Nation began his career under the guidance of trainer Bruce Headley.He paid $5.40, $3.20 and $2.60. Ace Blue, who won Hollywood Park's Mervyn Lerey (gr. II) in May, returned $5.80 and $3.40, completing a $29.40 exacta. Preachinatthebar, who was seeking his third straight win, was $3.20 to show.Bear in the Woods, Keep On Punching and Harvard Avenue trailed.(Chart, Equibase)