Wily Whilly Wire-to-Wire Winner in San Marcos

Crafty rider Felipe Martinez milked an easy lead with Irish-bred Whilly and had just enough left to hold off Puppeteer in the $150,000 San Marcos Handicap (gr. IIT) at 1 1/4 miles on the Santa Anita Park turf Saturday.

Meet-leading trainer Doug O'Neill picked his fifth stakes victory of the young Santa Anita season with Whilly, who is owned by Triple B Farms. O'Neill has 17 victories at the current meet.

Whilly completed the 10 furlongs – the first graded stakes on the turf at Santa Anita this season – in 2:00 3/5 on firm going. He won his first graded stakes race by a half-length.

O'Neill said he has big hopes for Whilly.

"We've been dreaming of going to Dubai so if he comes out of this good and they invite us, I think we're heading to the Middle East. But he'll probably run somewhere in between ... the horse acts like the longer (the distance) the better."

Martinez, who earned his first graded stakes victory in a career that began in 1989, said he didn't plan to go to the front, but no one else wanted the lead.

"That wasn't my plan, but Doug says 'if he happens to be on the lead then don't worry, just let him run.' I was hoping I would have something left.

"I could feel somebody right beside me," Martinez added, "but I could feel my horse just picking up, and that was a good feeling."

The son of Sri Pekan inherited the lead coming away from the gate in a well-bunched six-horse field. Martinez allowed the 4-year-old bay colt to lumber along on a long reign through fractions of :23 2/5, :47 3/5, 1:12 2/5 and 1:37. As the 9-10 favorite License To Run gave up the chase on the far turn, Whilly came off the rail for the stretch run and gamely held Puppeteer and Gary Stevens safe while drifting out a bit under strong handling.

Puppeteer was crowded early but stayed close to the front end while stalking the leader from between horses into the stretch. He finished up willingly on the extreme outside but his late surge was not enough to get by the winner.

Outsider T.H. Approval finished third another two lengths behind. Habaneros, who had every opportunity along the inside when Whilly drifted out in the stretch, settled for fourth.

License To Run, who was made the heavy choice following an adventurous third-place finish in the Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IT) Dec. 4, was in prime position on the outside of the leader on the far turn. But he quickly fell out of contention in spite of strong urging from Garrett Gomez.

Gomez said the Brazilian-bred License To Run, who made his first North American start in the Turf Cup, is having a hard time picking up the game for trainer Bobby Frankel.

"I thought with the post position we had today he would go ahead and be there for me and he just wasn't there," Gomez said. "I'm going to let Bobby talk to him, and see if Bobby can convince him to be a race horse."

Whilly, who began his career in Italy, won for the third time in his last four starts. He took the Sir Beaufort Stakes at Santa Anita in his last effort on Dec. 26. He was purchased privately by Paul H. Boghossian and his sons, Paul and Christopher, of North Hollywood, following an eighth-place finish in the Italian Derby (Ity-I) at Capannelle May 30. He had two game losing efforts in graded stakes in Southern California before winning the Bien Bien at Hollywood Park in November.

The victory was Whilly's seventh in 13 lifetime starts and improved his earnings to $325,622.

He paid $8.80, $4.20 and $4. Puppeteer returned $3.80 and $4.20 while completing a $25.60 exacta. T.H. Approval's show was $6.

License To Run finished fifth with Gorylla last.

(Chart, Equibase)