Winning trainer Jay Robbins admitted he had to "take a leap of faith" to enter the Mooncoin homebred Johnny Eves in the field of 14 sophomores on Cushion Track. But the gelded son of Skimming had been so impressive in winning a 6 1/2-furlong optional claiming race by nearly three lengths over the similar surface at Hollywood Park one month ago, the conservative conditioner decided to take a chance.
The 11-1 shot Johhny Eves completed the distance in an excellent time of 1:21.08 to defeat 42-1 shot Carrilero, who surged in the stretch to take second over Horse Greeley by 1 1/2 lengths. All three were outsiders in the wagering, creating some outstanding exotic payoffs.
Breaking from post 5 under David Flores, Johnny Eves went to the lead coming out of the chute before being overtaken on his inside by E Z Warrior and Desert Code. Johnny Eves rated three wide just off the leaders, who clicked off fast fractions of :22 and :44 on the speed-favoring all-weather strip. Johnny Eves moved up on the outside to get the lead on the turn as E Z Warrior and Desert Code quickly gave way.
Grade II winner Horse Greeley, making his second start since October 2006, loomed up four wide for Victor Espinoza at the head of the stretch to chase Johnny Eves, who had squirted away from the field to establish a solid lead. The late running Argentine-bred Carrilero, coming from far back after a half-mile for Jose Valdivia Jr., was cutting into the advantage effectively in the final sixteenth but ran out of time.
“Down the backside, I was just trying to figure out what the speed was going to do," said Flores after recording his third win on the opening day card. "At the five-sixteenths (pole) I just decided to go. This horse is very sharp now. We don’t know yet how good he is because he’s still learning. When I asked him, he really responded well.”
Johnny Eves recorded his fifth win in 10 lifetime starts for his connections, Carl Hilliard Jr. and Sharon Hilliard of Del Mar, and nearly doubled his earnings to $324,720. In his only prior stakes effort, Johnny Eves ran seventh as the favorite in the California Cup Sprint against state breds Nov. 3. The bay is out of the Capote mare Capote's Halo.
"He always gave the appearance of a good horse," said Robbins, who trained Tiznow to back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) victories in 2000 and 2001 and Horse of the Year honors in 2000. "But then he disappointed me in the Cal Cup Sprint. But he’s always trained like he’s better than average."
As far as stretching out for the second and third legs of the Strub series for 4-year-olds next year, Robbins responded, “I don’t know. We’ll have to sit down and discuss it, because he’s probably got limitations as to how far he’ll go.”
The winner paid $24, $12 and $9, topping a $2 exacta worth $902.40 with the Mike Puype-trained Carrilero, who returned $28 and $14.40. The $1 trifecta with Horse Greeley ($12.80 to show) was $831.50. The $1 superfecta, with 54-1 shot Hurry Up Austin fourth, was $120,856.50.
Favored Les Grands Trois (3-1) finished fifth, followed by Ididn'tdoanything, Incriminate, Silver Stetson Man, the previously unbeaten Divine Park, Unusual Suspect, Great Hunter, Cobalt Blue, E Z Warrior and Desert Code.