Pine Tree Lane, Past Forgetting and Chop House remain the only female horses to win the Santa Monica Handicap two years in a row.
With a chance to join the select group, Island Fashion, who beat Buffythecenterfold and four others in the Grade I a year ago, had to settle for second as the 3-2 favorite Sunday at Santa Anita Park.
Salt Champ, a 5-1 shot making her U.S. debut after winning four of seven in Argentina, came from well off the pace to thwart Island Fashion, prevailing by one length in the $250,000 affair.
Owned by Arturo Vargas, Salt Champ, who hadn’t raced since April 17, continued trainer Richard Mandella’s hot streak. The Hall of Famer has won with 12 of 26 starts since the meet began Dec. 26. Four of his victories have come in stakes, and the Santa Monica was his second Grade I. Rock Hard Ten, who will return in Saturday’s Strub Stakes, had the first in the Malibu on opening day.
Ridden by Gary Stevens, Salt Champ, who won three Group 1’s in South America, completed the seven furlongs in 1:22.14.
“Her works had been nice, but you never know what they’re really made of until you run them here,” Mandella said. “The tapes of her races showed races like this one, coming from behind, and I was impressed.”
So was Stevens, who picked up his fifth Santa Monica win, but his first since Serena’s Song in 1996.
“I had to wait a little bit coming into the stretch, and she just swung out,” Stevens said. “I kept finding new gears. I thought she was all out two different times and she wasn’t. She had more.
“When you’re riding for Richard Mandella, you know they are fit and they are prepared. He’s not just taking shots.”
Island Fashion, who broke a step slow and had to steady briefly around the turn, recovered to get a clear lead in the stretch, but had to settle for second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of 6-1 shot Resplendency.
“It was satisfying coming back like that,” said trainer Marcelo Polanco after Island Fashion’s first start in two months. “We went through a lot of rain and [problems with] quarter cracks with her. I’m not trying to make excuses, because she ran well. She ran her race but got beat by a better horse today.”
A race earlier, Elusive Diva, a 5-1 shot, held off 2-1 favorite Solar Echo, then withstood a claim of foul by Stevens, the rider of the runner-up, to win in her grass debut in the $81,000 Wishing Well Handicap. Kent Desormeaux rode the 4-year-old daughter of Elusive Diva for Mark Glatt, who trains the filly for a partnership.
A race earlier, Country Be Gold, a 22-1 shot, rallied along the inside in the final eighth of a mile to win the $110,300 Aqueduct Handicap at Aqueduct.
Owned by Elizabeth Dodson and Barry Seinfeld and trained by Steve Kappes, the 8-year-old Summer Squall gelding beat Aggadan, the 6-5 favorite, by three-quarters of a length. Ridden by Jose Espinoza, Country Be Gold ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.80. Mahzouz, a 12-1 shot, was third, a neck behind Aggadan.
Host, an 11-1 shot, passed stubborn pacesetter Navesink River to win the $100,000 Mac Diarmida Handicap on Sunday at Gulfstream Park.
Javier Castellano rode the winner, a 5-year-old Tabasco Cat horse, for a partnership and trainer John Kimmel. He ran the 1 3/8 miles on turf in 2:12.83 for his fifth win in 18 starts. Burning Sun, the 8-5 favorite who was making his first start for trainer Bobby Frankel since May 1, finished third.