Godolphin Racing's East Coast invader, Ashkal Way, given a patient ride by Garrett Gomez, seized the lead mid-stretch en route to his third successive graded stakes victory in the $400,000 Citation Handicap (gr. IT) on the Hollywood Park turf course Friday.
Sent off at generous odds of nearly 4-1, the Irish-bred Ashkal Way collected his first grade I win while turning in a stakes-record time of 1:39 3/5 for the 1 1/8-mile distance on firm going. The 4-year-old Ashkalani gelding took over from the fading Silent Name, inched away to an open advantage on the challengers Hendrix and Three Valleys inside the eighth pole, and could not be headed to win by one length.
The 25-1 outsider Hendrix, last in the field after six furlongs, closed impressively after finding room to nose fellow closer Three Valleys for second - with Cosmonaut, invading from the East with Edgar Prado in the irons, finishing fourth, 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
Gomez, who took the last three races at Hollywood Park Friday, has won on Ashkal Way all four times he has been aboard him.
"We had a perfect trip," said Gomez, who also rode Cat's Cradle winner Gn. Group Meeting on the program. "I was by myself down the backstretch. I felt a little pressure coming about the half-mile pole, and I went ahead and put him in gear. I was making a little run around the turn and really the only decision I had to make was to duck inside Doug O'Neill's horse (Whilly) rather than go around."
A hot pace materialized when multiple grade I winner Sweet Return, breaking from an outside post, forced his way to the front ahead of Woodbine Mile (Can-I) winner Becrux for the early lead, sprinting away to lead through fractions of :23 2/5 and :46 2/5. Silent Name angled to the outside early for Victor Espinoza and took the lead on the backstretch from Sweet Return, who continued to press into the final turn as they completed six furlongs in 1:09 3/5. Ashkal Way, who broke from the 11th hole in the 12-horse field, was able to relax off the fast pace in seventh while racing a bit off the rail. He moved into position between horses on the final turn and rallied three wide in the stretch. The winner had dead aim on Silent Name, whose rider lost his whip at the eighth pole, and he soon surged to the front under steady left-handed urging.
Favored Rob Roy (19-10), like Silent Name making a quick turnaround from the NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), was never a factor and finished fifth. Silent Name was next, followed by Becrux, Stormin Away, Courtnall, Sweet Return, Whilly, and Bravo Maestro.
The impeccable Ashkal Way capped a tremendous 2006 season with his sixth triumph in seven U.S. starts for Dubai-based Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor, who was at Hollywood Park for the race. The chestnut came into the Citation after back-to-back grade II wins in New York's Bernard Baruch Handicap Aug. 26 at Saratoga and Belmont Park's Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap Sept. 30. Ashkal Way started his career in Great Britain. Overall, his record is 8-3-2 in 16 starts with earnings of $753,349.
"I'm happy with this result," bin Suroor said. "This is a grade I for him, and he won the last two in group two. And we were confident that he'd win a grade I. The horse, he always improves, and he comes very well into races."
Sent off as the second choice, the winner paid $9.80, $5, an $3.80. Hendrix rounded out a $187.80 exacta while returning $16.40 and $9.80 for the place. Three Valleys, returning to Southern California for trainer Bobby Frankel, rebounded from a couple of recent lackluster efforts and was $6 to show.