After a weekend featuring 3-year-old stakes of varying degrees of importance, nothing that happened in California, New York or Florida on Sunday is likely to change anyone’s mind about one thing.
Empire Maker, so dominant in the Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, at this stage deserves to be the consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
In the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Sunday, the second-most significant race for the class the last few days, Buddy Gil, a 9-1 shot who had finished fifth and seventh in two previous appearances in stakes around two turns, won by a nostril over 3-1 third choice Atswhatimtalknabout.
Over a track that for most of the afternoon favored horses coming from off the pace, Buddy Gil, a gelded son of Eastern Echo owned by a partnership that includes Scott Guenther, breeder Donny McFadden and Charles Johnson and trained by Jeff Mullins, completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.64 under jockey Gary Stevens.
Winning the San Felipe for the second time in three years, Stevens and Buddy Gil split horses while rallying through the stretch, collared 48-1 shot Brancusi -- who had broken his maiden last month -- in the final yards, then won a head bob from a flying Atswhatimtalknabout, who had trailed through the first half mile.
The two disappointments in the Grade II, the final prep for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5, were Domestic Dispute and Man Among Men. The former, the 2-1 favorite, made an early run while wide under jockey Jerry Bailey but failed to sustain it and had to settle for fifth.
Meanwhile, Man Among Men, who had surprised Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 7, never mounted a threat. The 5-2 second choice, he finished seventh, almost 13 lengths behind the winner.
A winner of the Baldwin Stakes, a turf sprint, at 26-1 in his first for Mullins on Feb. 23, Buddy Gil -- named for Tom Gilmour, McFadden’s longtime friend -- isn’t currently eligible for either the Santa Anita or the Triple Crown races, but that figures to change soon. It will cost his owners $22,500 to run in the Santa Anita Derby and another $6,000 to make him eligible for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
“I got him shortly after his last race at Golden Gate [the Golden Gate Derby on Jan. 11] and he started gaining some weight and really started coming to life,” said Mullins, who is second to Bob Baffert in the Santa Anita trainer standings. “I thought we could win today.”
Making only his fourth career start, Atswhatimtalknabout narrowly missed. In fact, Stevens thought he had been beaten and congratulated David Flores, rider of the runner-up, after the finish line.
“I thought he won,” trainer Ron Ellis said of Atswhatimtalknabout, a $900,000 purchase earlier this year by owner B. Wayne Hughes. “It was a tough race to lose, but he’s still learning and improving and I think he’s headed in the right direction.”
In two other 3-year-old races Sunday, Alysweep, a 9-1 shot trying more than six furlongs for the first time, led all the way and won the $200,000 Gotham at Aqueduct, and 8-5 favorite Region Of Merit prevailed in the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.