Curlin Road (outside) and Hard Aces duel to the wire in the Cougar II Handicap

Curlin Road (outside) and Hard Aces duel to the wire in the Cougar II Handicap

Benoit Photo

Curlin Road Wears Down Hard Aces in Cougar II

Curlin gelding overcame bumping in the stretch to get his nose in front.

R3 Racing, Calara Farms, and ERJ Racing's Curlin Road certainly had to work for his first graded victory in the $100,000 Cougar II Handicap (G3) July 26 at Del Mar.

As if the Cougar II's 1 1/2 miles wasn't tiring enough, the 4-year-old gelding had to absorb multiple bumps in the stretch from defending race winner Hard Aces, but was still able to get his nose in front at the wire at odds of 9-1.

A brief stewards review after an objection by Hard Aces' jockey Santiago Gonzalez—even though replays showed his mount came out and initiated the contact multiple times—resulted in no change.

A $40,000 claim in April by trainer Doug O'Neill, the son of Curlin  made just his second graded start in the Cougar II, following a fifth-place finish in the 2016 Los Alamitos Derby (G2), 11 starts back for trainer Steve Knapp. Curlin Road turned back quickly for the Cougar II after a 1 1/4-length optional-claiming allowance win at Los Alamitos Race Course July 16.

"When he stepped into our stable, we knew he was a special horse," said O'Neill assistant Leandro Mora. "All we needed to do was make him healthy and happy enough, and he's paying us back. We were right this time (bringing him back on 10 days rest)."

Hronis Racing's Hard Aces, who came into the race undefeated in two starts at the marathon distance—he also won the Tokyo City Cup (G3) at 1 1/2 miles April 2—took control with a wide move as he entered the final of three turns under Gonzalez.

Four wide early in the turn and three wide midway through, Hard Aces had a clear lead turning for home, but Curlin Road—who saved ground until he angled out midway through the turn under jockey Flavien Prat—loomed the only danger.

The pair dueled to the wire, and although Hard Aces appeared to get the best of a head bob at the wire, Curlin Road was revealed the winner in a photo finish, with a final time of 2:31.74.

Hronis Racing and John Sadler stablemate Infobedad set the pace, with fractions of :24.70, :49.35, and 1:14.28 through six furlongs, but lost the lead to longshot Noble Nick in the final turn. Noble Nick's time at the front lasted only momentarily, however, as Hard Aces surged by on the outside.

Noble Nick held for third, and was followed by Infobedad, French Getaway, Big John B, and Giant Influence, to complete the order of finish.

Regarding the bumping in the stretch, the two jockeys involved had differing views.

"My horse was game. He wanted to win that race," Prat said. "We came together, but I thought that was mostly (Hard Aces) pushing on me. It worked out for the best."

"He ran really well. The bumping cost me," Gonzalez said. "If I don't get bumped, I think I win."

Bred in Kentucky by Mineola Farm II, James Hirschmann, and Silent Groves Farm, out of the Coronado's Quest mare Spread, Curlin Road now has a 4-3-3 record from 24 starts, with $231,750 in earnings.