Proven in sloppy conditions, Congrats relished the off track Saturday at waterlogged Santa Anita Park, splashing away to an easy victory in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II).
Ridden by Tyler Baze, Congrats registered his first graded stakes success after a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Native Diver (gr. III) at Hollywood Park in his last start Dec. 11. That was the 5-year-old A.P. Indy
horse's first try for trainer Richard Mandella.
Saturday's victory stamps Congrats as a horse to watch during in the West Coast handicap division this year. The San Pasqual is the first race for older horses on the road to the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) on March 5.
"I really think this horse could be going places," Baze said. "Just think what he would have done on a real good track today. It might have cost the other horses a little bit too, but I really think this horse is something special."
In his last start on an off track, Congrats won the Alysheba at Churchill Downs April 30 on sloppy going by 1 3/4 lengths over Perfect Drift. He lost four in a row after that leading up to Sunday's victory.
"He trained great for the Native Diver but he sure didn't run his race that day," Mandella said. "We changed a few things this time and he sure came through. I put a little more enthusiasm in him this time, that's all."
Mandella said Congrats would be pointed to the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) on Feb. 6, and then the Big 'Cap.
A field of five was left to contest the San Pasqual after the scratches of Brazilian-bred Lundy's Liability and Habaneros.
Congrats, who prompted pacesetter Excessivepleasure through fast early fractions, took over on the far turn and soon had a commanding advantage. The bay continued to maintain that lead through the final furlong, winning by 5 1/2 lengths over 11-10 favorite Total Impact, winner of last summer's Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I). Sigfreto ran third, 9 1/2 lengths behind the winner. The final time on super sloppy going was 1:41 4/5.
Excessivepleasure, ridden by Jon Court, bounded out of the gate to establish a 1 1/2-length advantage over Congrats, who broke from the extreme outside. Excessivepleasure staked fractions of :22 2/5, :45 1/5 and 1:09 3/5 before backing out of contention. Congrats took over and was never challenged.
Total Impact, Victor Espinoza aboard, was in striking position behind the first two on the far turn but was left behind by the winner. He was second best as Sigfreto and Omar Figueroa ran on for third.
The Chilean-bred Total Impact carried high weight of 120 pounds, six pounds more than the winner.
Previously in the barn of Shug McGaughey, owner/breeders Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider moved Congrats, who is out of the Mr. Prospector mare Praise, to Mandella late in the year after a sixth-place finish in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II).
Congrats has won seven of 16 lifetime starts with three thirds for earnings of $463,390.
The second choice in the field, he paid $8.20, $3 and $2.20. Total Impact returned $2.80 and $2.10 as part of an $18.40 exacta. Sigfreto's show was $2.40. Excessivepleasure and Formal Attire trailed.