Sprinter Taste of Paradise, the longest shot on the board ridden by Victor Espinoza, registered a stunning front-running victory at odds of 37-1 in Sunday's $250,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) over 1 1/16 mile at Del Mar.
The 4-year-old Conquistador Cielo colt, owned by Keith Abrahams and Paul Bloom and trained by John Sadler, held off Gondolieri by three-quarters of a length. Reba's Gold rallied wide in the homestretch to get third, a neck behind. The final time on a fast track was 1:42 3/5.
The winner paid $76.80, $20.80 and $6.60. Gondolieri, winner of the Inglewood at Hollywood Park in May, returned $6.40 and $4.20. Reba's Gold, who won the Seabiscuit (gr. III) at Bay Meadows at Sunday's distance by eight lengths on May 26, showed for $3. The $2 exacta was worth a whopping $836.60.
It was the first stakes victory of the current Del Mar meeting for both Espinoza and Sadler. Taste of Paradise, who had never been the 1 1/16-mile distance until Sunday, won his first stakes race.
Eight started in the San Diego, and another sprinter, Joey Franco, was the 2-1 favorite. Joey Franco, ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, was wide into the first turn and faded in the stretch to finish last. Taste Of Paradise, who went to the lead from his outside post, covered the opening quarter-mile in :22 4/5, the half-mile in :45 3/5 and six furlongs in 1:10.
"When we drew the far outside, I knew I was going to have to go with him," Espinoza said. "I thought I could get near the front, maybe lay second or third. But he broke so sharp and went to the front so easy, I just let him go on with it. He was comfortable up there, even though the fractions were fast."
The winner was well clear in the stretch, but needed strong handling to hold off the late challenge of Gondolieri, the Chilean bred ridden by Frank Alvarado, and Creston Farm's popular Reba's Gold, the 3-1 second choice in the field ridden by David Flores. Danthebluegrassman, who was rated behind the leader all the way, faded late but finished fourth.
"When we turned for home I kept riding him," Espinoza added. "I knew there would be pressure coming, but he kept on trying."
Flores said he knew he was in trouble when Reba's Gold fell behind early.
"I had a good trip," Flores said. "Just no luck. The closers aren't doing any good today. Nothing is catching up in the stretch."
Valenzuela said he had to fight Joey Franco.
"He was trying to get out with me on the first turn," he said . "I don't know what it was. Maybe the distance was the problem today. I hope that's all it was."
Fourth in his only previous graded stakes effort, the Bay Meadows Sprint Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III) on June 7, Taste of Paradise earned $150,000 for his third victory in nine career outings, increasing his bankroll to $252,360. His owners bred the winner in Kentucky.
"He's a pretty good horse," Sadler said. "He's been training really well down here and we decided to take a shot. We always felt he had stakes capability.
"We knew we had to be aggressive going into the first turn. We didn't want to be hung out wide on the turn. You can't do that at Del Mar and win. We didn't know whether we'd be on the lead but we wanted to be placed well, and no worse than two wide going into the turn. The early fractions seemed pretty fast, but he wasn't being pressed real hard and he was running easy. Maybe that's a benefit of being a longshot."
Primerica was scratched at the gate. Publication and Daunting were withdrawn earlier in the day.