Jockey Patrick Valenzuela earned his first California stakes victory since late in 2007 when he guided J P's Gusto to a front-running half-length win in the $150,000 Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Del Mar Aug. 8.
Valenzuela picked up the mount on J P's Gusto for trainer David Hofmans after Joe Talamo sustained a broken wrist in a fall earlier in the week. The 47-year-old Valenzuela was suspended by the California Horse Racing Board in 2008 for a drunk driving offense and only regained his conditional license to ride in the state a few days prior to the start of the Del Mar meet July 21. His last stakes win in California came aboard El Gato Malo in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate Fields in December 2007.
This was Valenzuela's third win in the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal for 2-year-olds. The 47-year-old rider won it the first time aboard Best Pal in 1990 for trainer Ian Jory when the race was known as the Balboa Stakes. His most recent win in the race came in 2003 with the Mel Stute-trained Perfect Moon. Best Pal, coincidentally, is to be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame Aug. 12.
Valenzuela told TVG, "Best Pal has a big piece of my heart. He won $5 million. He was an awesome racehorse. But this is a nice colt (J P's Gusto). I reserved enough for the final part and he ran very well."
Two scratches reduced the Best Pal field to five.
Breaking from the rail, J P's Gusto dueled early for the lead with Western Mood before taking over. He cut quarter-mile fractions of :22.58 and :46.31 while racing between horses.
J P's Gusto inched away around the turn to take a clear lead in the stretch as Western Mood gave way and he gamely held off the late-running 3-2 favorite Sway Away, who raced greenly through the stretch while wide for jockey Rafael Bejarano. The winning time was 1:16.61 over the Polytrack.
Valenzuela urged the diminutive J P's Gusto to victory in spite of drifting out some in the final furlong. Sway Away trailed for the first half-mile and finished well while unable to get past the winner in the final strides.
Hofmans said prior to the race that he would prefer to see J P's Gusto rated off the early pace. But afterward, he laughed, acknowleding Valenzuela's skill as front-end rider. "Well, you've got to leave it up to an old pro like him (Valenzuela)," he said.
"The horse ran well," Hofmans added. "He's been training fresh and strong. He really skips over the Polytrack."
Valenzuela now has 60 stakes wins at Del Mar, 10th best on the track's all-time list. This was his first Del Mar stakes win since 2005. Valenzuela won his first Del Mar stakes in 1980 as a 17-year-old.
"He broke so sharp," Valenzuela said. "I didn't want the lead but I inherited it. This is a really nice colt and he's got a great future in front of him. Being here today and doing this almost makes me want to cry. It is by the grace of the lord that I am doing it. I am so thankful."
Hofmans said J P's Gusto would be pointed to the Sept. 8 Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) on closing day.
"We're right on schedule," he said. "I don't think he'll have any trouble getting seven furlongs in the Futurity. We'll go to the Futurity unless this horse kills me first. He's a very tough horse to handle all the time. Patrick said that when he felt the others coming to him, he kicked into another gear."
J P's Gusto, the morning line favorite, won his third consecutive race, all in stakes. Bred to win early, the precocious ridgling son of Successful Appeal --Call Her Magic, by Caller I.D., won the 5 1/2-furlong Willard Proctor Memorial in his second start at Hollywood Park May 31 by 4 1/2 furlongs. He earned his first graded win in his next race, the six-furlong Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III), which he captured by a neck over Western Mood in another gutsy effort July 5.
Owned by Gem Inc., the bay has won three of four starts -- he finished sixth in his debut this spring at Hollywood -- and boosted his career earnings to $187,360 with the Best Pal's winning purse of $90,000.
WinStar Farm bred J P's Gusto. He sold for $52,000 at Keeneland as a yearling last September.
Sent off as the third choice, J P's Gusto carried top weight of 123 pounds and paid $6.80, $3.20, and $2.40 while keying a $21.40 exacta. Sway Away, who was unexpected favorite off a debut maiden win by 3 1/4 lengths at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton June 27, returned $3 and $2.10. Second choice Western Mood, ridden by Joel Rosario, held on for third, four lengths behind the winner.
Bejarano said Sway Away didn't like the Polytrack kickback. "I had to take him wide because he was throwing his head," he said. "When we turned for home I thought he'd fire and we'd go by. But the winner had a real easy lead. Nobody put any pressure on him."
Outsiders Comma to the Top and Minutesandtouches trailed. Wickedly Perfect, who won the Sorrento Stakes (gr. III) for 2-year-old fillies Aug. 6, and River's Chapel scratched.