Argentine-bred mare Salt Champ made her United States debut for trainer Richard Mandella with a visually impressive victory in the $250,000 Santa Monica Handicap (gr. I) Sunday at Santa Anita Park.Salt Champ came from far out of it for jockey Gary Stevens to run down multiple grade I winner Island Fashion in deep stretch for a one-length win in the seven-furlong Santa Monica.The favored Island Fashion, making her 2005 debut after a two-month layoff, looked like a winner under Patrick Valenzuela with an eighth of a mile to go. But she was no match for Salt Champ, a two-time group I winner in her native land who revved up from the back of the pack on the turn, circling the field while five wide to win going away. The time was 1:22 on a fast track."She's one fierce lady, that's what Richard told me," Stevens said. "She just kept grinding down the stretch. I thought she was giving me her all, but she kept finding new gears. I'm looking forward to this year with her. She's a classy horse."Salt Champ had put in three outstanding official workouts in succession for Mandella leading up to the race and received support at the windows as a result."Her works were nice, but you never really know what they're really made of until you run them here," Mandella said. "I think she'll run further." Island Fashion, the high weight at 120 pounds in the field of nine, spotted the winner four pounds while attempting to repeat her 2004 victory in the Santa Monica, the nation's first grade I stakes of the year.Her trainer, Marcelo Polanco, was encouraged."It was satisfying coming back like that," he said. "We went through a lot of rain and quarter cracks. I'm not trying to make excuses because she ran good. She ran her race. She got beat by a better horse today."Owned and bred by Arturo Vargas, Salt Champ, a 5-year-old Salt Lake mare, raced with Lasix for the first time. Her best races in Argentina were as a front-running miler.She was outrun early as Born to Dance fought Resplendency for the lead through sizzling fractions of :21 3/5 and :44 1/5. Island Fashion, racing in mid-pack off the rail in the early going after a slow start, was forced to steady on the turn briefly. But Island Fashion got room in upper stretch while rallying three wide and edged away from the pacesetters after completing five furlongs in 1:09. However, she did not finish with the same zeal she displayed in winning last year's Santa Monica, the second of two grade I races she captured a year ago at Santa Anita.Salt Champ earned $150,000 for her fifth victory in eight lifetime starts, giving her a career bankroll of $217,541.She paid $13, $5.80 and $4. Island Fashion, the 3-2 choice, returned $3.40 and $2.60. Resplendency held on for third with Casey Fusilier in the irons, paying $3.60. The $2 exacta was worth $40.80.Royally Chosen, Born to Dance, Tamweel, Platinum Princess, Tizakitty and Irgunette completed the order.Yearly Report, the 5-2 morning line favorite, was scratched after running sixth in Saturday's Sunshine Millions Distaff.In a second feature, the $81,000 Wishing Well Handicap for fillies and mares on the downhill turf course, Elusive Diva swept past Very Vegas in the stretch and held off 2-1 betting favorite Solar Echo for a half-length victory.
Ridden by Kent Desormeaux for trainer Mark Glatt and owners Branch, Branch and Konecny, Elusive Diva ran about 6 ½ furlongs on good turf in 1:13. She paid $12 as the third choice in the wagering.A 4-year-old Kentucky-bred by Elusive Quality, Elusive Diva has four wins from 10 starts with earnings of $270,070. Her biggest victory is the Railbird Stakes (gr. III) on dirt last year at Hollywood Park.(Chart, Equibase)