Joe Talamo was in no hurry. As fellow riders with assignments in the Gold Cup hustled toward the jockeys’ room, he stopped near its entrance to view a replay of the just-completed Triple Bend Stakes, in which his longshot mount placed fourth.
No late game-planning was required of Talamo for the imminent Cup, a Grade 1 showcase. In an eight-horse field with a scarcity of early speed, he would tuck Melatonin behind certain pacesetter Lieutenant Colonel and bide his time.
Sure enough, a half-hour later, Melatonin was in no hurry as the projected race scenario came true. The gelding loped along in second from the starting gate until the stretch, when gentle urging from Talamo pushed him first across the finish line.
Unconquered in four outings on the dirt course at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Handicap, Melatonin assured himself of a fifth try. The win locked down a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5.
“We were gunning for that anyway,” trainer David Hofmans said, “but to win this is quite a bonus.”
Melatonin jumped the morning-line favorite Hoppertunity on the oddsboard and was dispatched as the public’s 9-to-5 pick. Bettors were persuaded by tamped-down expectations from trainer Bob Baffert, who expressed hesitancy about entering Hoppertunity.
Still, Baffert was beating a path to the winner’s circle Saturday. He took the Triple Bend with Lord Nelson, plus the previous race on the card.
Yet it was Baffert who told trainer Jerry Hollendorfer as their horses were being saddled for the Gold Cup, “You’ve had a really good day.”
Hollendorfer had claimed three races in a row prior to Baffert’s pair and was aiming for a fourth with Lieutenant Colonel.
It was not out of character for Hoppertunity to run at the rear, as he did Saturday. But he passed only four contestants down the lane of the 1 1/4-mile course for his poorest placement in seven starts.
Most surprising was the horse that became a sidecar to Melatonin in the stretch. At 24-1, Win The Space carried more than double the odds of the second longest price. And he carried an unfamiliar rider, though trainer George Papaprodromou could have done considerably worse than Gary Stevens as a replacement.
Asked if he was thinking mega-upset running alongside Melatonin, Stevens said, “Sure. Actually, he got a head in front at the eighth pole.
“It was a huge run,” added Stevens, who got a congratulatory pat from the trainer as if the runner-up Win The Space had won the race.
Melatonin might not belong in the elite class of past Gold Cup champions such as Cigar, Citation, Swaps and the inaugural winner Seabiscuit, but his backstory compares favorably to any predecessor.
A neurological illness shelved him for a year and a half. The disease could have halted his livelihood, if not his life.
“We gave him time to get rid of that awful thing in his body,” Hofmans said. “I think that held him back and, since we got rid of that, he’s developed into such a nice horse.”
Owing to the disease and Melatonin’s smallish stature, Hofmans previously spaced out his workload. The horse’s competitive history shows 13 races, few for a 5-year-old.
Talamo deflected any credit. “It goes to his trainer, right there,” he said, pointing to Hofmans. “He has been very, very conservative with the horse — in a good way.”
Hofmans is catching up for lost time. Melatonin’s likely next outing at Del Mar would be his ninth in about a 12-month span.
The trainer intends to wait until the Classic to challenge heavy hitters California Chrome and Beholder — “Grade 1-plus horses,” as he described them.
But given Melatonin’s fondness for the Santa Anita soil and two Grade 1 triumphs in the past 3 1/2 months, his newfound presence in the picture of Classic contenders is hardly a case of photo-bombing.