The pacesetter Whilly refused to give in when headed in the stretch by favorite King of Happiness and outlasted his rival to win the $250,000 American Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Hollywood Park turf Sunday.
Doug O'Neill trains the Irish-bred 4-year-old son of Sri Pekan, who won the San Marcos (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita in January and ran second to Australian star Elvstroem in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) in March. He returned from the United Arab Emirates to run fifth in the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) May 30 at Hollywood.
Breaking from the rail in the 1 1/8-mile American with journeyman Felipe Martinez aboard, Whilly jumped to the front and settled in while carving fractions of :23 2/5, :47 1/5 and 1:10 2/5. Racing slightly off the rail coming off the far turn, Martinez allowed King of Happiness and Patrick Valenzuela to edge up on his inside and the Neil Drysdale-trained challenger stuck his head in front in upper stretch. But through the lane, Whilly came back on and was edging away at the wire to win by half a length.
Another Drysdale trainee, Fourty Niners Son, closed nicely with Jerry Bailey aboard on the outside to finish third, just missing the runner-up spot. The final time was a solid 1:46 1/5.
O'Neill admitted he was concerned when King of Happiness got through on the inside.
"A little bit, but maybe in the end having him in between us and the rail, maybe that was a little intimidating, I don't know. But I'm happy with the outcome, I know that."
Martinez, who will be 41 in a week, won his first graded stakes race at Hollywood Park.
"This has to be my favorite horse ever," said Martinez, who has been aboard the colt in his last eight starts. "I have never won such a big race. I'm just so happy because this horse is so special to me.
"On the backside today, he got to relax a little bit. I was so happy with the way he dropped his head and relaxed. That was what I wanted him to do. It gave me a lot of confidence."
Paul Boghossian and sons' Triple B Farms own Whilly, who raced in Italy before debuting in the United States with a third-place finish in the Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hollywood Park a little more than a year ago. Whilly won for the second time in five tries on the Hollywood lawn.
Overall, Whilly has eight wins in 16 starts with earnings of $882,482.
Whilly paid $16.20, $6.40 and $4.40. King of Happiness, who ran a similar race when finishing second to Castledale in the Shoemaker, returned $3.40 and $2.60 as the 9-5 choice. Fourty Niners Son, who had won three straight allowance condition races coming into the American, was $4.40 to show.