David Bloom's Taste of Paradise, the longest shot in the field at 26-1, gave trainer Gary Mandella his first graded stakes win by barely a nose over Watchem Smokey in the $100,000 Vernon O. Underwood (gr. III) at Hollywood Park Sunday.
On a track rated fast but looking plenty sloppy after a full day of rain in Southern California, the 5-year-old Taste of Paradise took plenty of mud while coming from off a hot pace to knock heads with Watchem Smokey for the final 75 yards. He got up in the final bob of the head in an extremely tight finish. The time for the six furlongs was 1:08.
"I'm glad I had a better vantage point, because I thought he got there about two jumps before the wire from where I was sitting," said Mandella, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. "If I'd seen it on the TV monitor I would have had a heart attack."
Ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., the Kentucky-bred horse by Conquistador Cielo won his first stakes race since taking the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar in August 2003. He was 37-1 that day.
Valdivia said he raced on the inside until angling outside coming out of the turn.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Watchem Smoky come up and take my spot along the rail," Valdivia said. "I said, 'Come on, Papa,' and he was so game today. He just exploded, and we got it done."
Taste of Paradise was making his first start since Aug. 15 when he was in the stable of Molly Pearson. He ran last of five in that start, the Pat O'Brien Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar. Mandella took blinkers off for the race Sunday.
Mandella said Taste of Paradise, who suffered an abscess on his left hind foot in the O'Brien, was crying for a race.
"He was really looking for something to do," Mandella said. "And that's a good time to run a horse a little bit shorter than what their optimum distance is, because they're so sharp and they will usually show a little more speed than they normally do. He was in a very tactical position all the way around, and that really helped.
"He showed today that he's a much better horse than the one that ran in the Pat O'Brien."
My Master and Our New Recruit broke on top and battled through fast early fractions, completing the opening quarter mile in :21 3/5. Taste of Paradise, a distant third on the turn, began a belated rally on the far outside after Watchem Smokey, ridden by Rene Douglas, took over from the tiring pacesetters in mid-stretch with a gradual move along the inside.
My Master was a couple of lengths farther behind in third, keeping the 3-2 favorite Kela off the board in the seven-horse field. Our New Recuit, Newark and My Cousin Matt trailed.
Kela, the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) runner-up ridden Sunday by Corey Nakatani, responded only mildly in the stretch run and was not a factor while fourth.
"As bad as the track was this afternoon, he just couldn't handle it," Nakatani said. "I was sitting there in a good spot, thinking he would pick it up at any time. But he was just protecting himself out there. He wanted no part of it."
Taste of Paradise won his fifth race in 20 lifetime starts and improved his earnings to $414,455. 'Paradise' has won four of seven career tries at Hollywood Park.
He paid $54.80, $20.40 and $8.40. Watchem Smokey, looking for a repeat of his 2003 Underwaood victory for trainer Bobby Frankel, returned $6.80 and $5.20, completing a $257.40 exacta. My Master ($7) rounded out a $2,001 trifecta.