When last seen under silks, Fair Judgment was a helpless sight, floundering around on soft grass and finishing up the track in the Oct. 22 Budweiser International.
But that race was run over the infamous Laurel bog, a turf course notorious for its ability to retain, rather than drain, water.
The Hollywood Park turf course, on the other hand, shed Sunday morning's two-hour downpour like a well-oiled duck, providing Fair Judgment with the perfect footing to finally score his first American stakes win in the $108,300 Citation Handicap.
Fair Judgment's task was made easier when both Bosphorous, the morning-line favorite, and Ruhlmann, the morning-line second choice, were scratched as a result of the brief rain. Delegant, the other half of the Mike Whittingham entry, was also withdrawn.
Rick Mettee, however, didn't give the weather a second thought. "A soft course at Laurel and a soft course at Hollywood are two very different things," said Mettee, Fair Judgment's trainer, who also happens to be a native of Baltimore. "I never thought about scratching my horse."
If anything, the extra give in the ground aided Fair Judgment in his three-quarters of a length victory over longshot Quiet Boy in the 1 1/8-mile Citation. The 5-year-old son of Alleged is a big, heavy-boned horse who pounds the ground and tends to burn his tender ankles.
Neither did it hurt that Mettee was able to get Eddie Delahoussaye to replace Gary Stevens aboard Fair Judgment. Stevens, who took the call on Bosphorous and ended up watching the Citation from the jockeys' room, had ridden Fair Judgment in all four of his American starts.
Delahoussaye, always a quick study, learned that Fair Judgment does not like to be hurried, no matter what the situation. The bay horse has one long, relentless run and a style that resists variation.
Through the first half-mile of the race, Fair Judgment cruised along at the back of the six-horse field. The pace was being set by In Extremis, who opened a three-length lead down the backstretch and appeared to be in a wrestling match with Laffit Pincay. "He was running with his head cocked sideways," said Pincay of In Extremis, who also ran poorly at Laurel. "But he does that a lot. He's just very competitive."
"It looked like they were going fast up front," said Delahoussaye, the meet's leading rider. "But the clock said they weren't."
Around the final turn the field began to converge on In Extremis. Quiet Boy, who had dogged the pace from the beginning, put in a big run on the far outside. Patchy Groundfog, who was on the bit from the start, was in good position for the last run. Even the 7-year-old veteran Skip Out Front, third in last year's Citation, was in the hunt after being shuffled to the back of the pack.
Delahoussaye chose the high road with Fair Judgment, circling wide and taking dead aim on Quiet Boy with a furlong to run. With jockey Martin Pedroza trying to get his first winner in 63 rides, Quiet Boy was running his best race since winning the Auld Lang Syne Stakes at Hollywood in July. But it was not quite good enough.
Fair Judgment caught Quiet Boy inside the eighth pole, opened daylight, and then held his rival safe with one last burst.
"Nothing to it," the unruffled Delahoussaye said with a shrug. "That second horse was coming back at me, but my horse had pulled himself up once he made the lead."
The course was labeled good, so Fair Judgment's final time of 1:50 hardly compared to Forlitano's stakes record 1:46 3/5 set last year.
Fair Judgment is owned by Tokyo builder Tomonori Tsurumaki, who purchased the horse privately from Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum in 1988. Originally a $625,000 yearling, Fair Judgment was three for 11 in Europe before joining Mettee about a year ago.
Mettee, 31, exhibits all the patience of his mentor, John Gosden, the English trainer who repatriated to his homeland last year after a successful decade in California. Gosden's hallmark was wait, then wait some more.
Mettee was forced to wait with Fair Judgment last summer when the horse came down with a slight virus after his winning debut at Hollywood Park. Mettee waited again after the debacle at Laurel last month, worried that the race may have taken more out of Fair Judgment than was apparent.
Now Mettee must decide if two weeks is too soon for Fair Judgment's next start. The Hollywood Turf Cup comes up on Dec. 10, with a $500,000 purse that is enough to tempt even the most patient trainer.
Horse Racing Notes
Fair Judgment returned $10.60 and topped a $101.60 exacta to Quiet Boy. . . . Champion quarter horse trainer Blane Schvaneveldt won his first Hollywood Park thoroughbred race Sunday with Temptation Time. The 5-year-old son of Olden Times won by 1 3/4 lengths for a $62,500 claiming tag. . . . Martin Pedroza's uncharacteristic slump reached 64 consecutive losers at the end of Sunday's action. . . . Gary Stevens tripled with consecutive victories in the fifth, sixth and seventh, moving into a tie with Alex Solis for second behind Delahoussaye in the standings. Delahoussaye leads by one, 13-12.