Trainer John Sadler still remembers last week when he lost a nose-whisker photo finish in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile. Saturday the outcome was quite different as he won the photo finish and also his second straight Grade 1 $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap.
Gift Box, running only his second race for Sadler and owners Kosta and Pete Hronis, outdueled McKinzie down the stretch in the final strides to win the track's most prestigious race for older horses. The final margin in the 1¼-mile race was a nose. Accelerate won last year for Sadler and Hronis Racing.
"To beat a top horse like McKinzie in a photo like that [is unbelievable]," Sadler said. "We needed that because we lost a tough photo last week."
Kosta Hronis didn't really see it as close as everyone else.
"I thought we had it," Hronis said. "I was the only one who left the box. I came straight down, but I did pause until it went up on the board because I kept hearing the crowd moan."
Gift Box paid $6.20, $2.40 and $2.20. Mongolian Groom was third followed by Campaign, Prime Attraction and Prince of Arabia.
Prime Attraction broke on top but surrendered the lead to Gift Box with a quarter-mile to go. McKinzie had his head in front entering the stretch and dueled Gift Box, with Joel Rosario aboard, to wire.
"It was a tough beat," said Mike Smith, McKinzie's jockey. "I thought I was in front, I just didn't get the bob. There's not a lot you can do about that. It's part of the game."
It's unclear where Gift Box will race next, although Sadler is looking for a handicap race around Kentucky Derby time in Louisville.
In the 3-year-old filly division, Bellafina couldn't have looked any better winning the Grade 1 $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks, over 1 1/16miles. She will likely be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Oaks, held the day before the Kentucky Derby.
She won by 5¼ lengths although it could have been whatever margin jockey Flavien Prat wanted it to be. Bellafina paid $2.60 to win followed by Flor de La Mar, Chasing Yesterday and Slewgoodtobetrue in the four-horse field.
"It worked out perfectly," said trainer Simon Callaghan. "She relaxed great, did exactly what Flavien wanted, and she was there when he wanted her."
Bellafina has won six of her last seven races, the only blemish being a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs.
Callaghan also has the first- and second-place finishers in the Grade 3 $150,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Hostess rallied in deep stretch to be beat Maxim Rate by a nose. She paid $53.00 to win for jockey Drayden Van Dyke. Lady Prancealot, the favorite, finished third.
Vasilika won for the 11th time in her last 12 races by taking the Grade 2 $200,000 Royal Heroine Stakes for older fillies and mares going a mile on the turf. She paid $2.60 to win and was followed by Meal Ticket and Space Talk.
"I can never do anything wrong with this filly," Prat said of the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained mare. "No matter what I do, she covers me. She is definitely something special."
In the first of two stakes restricted to Cal-breds, Sneaking Out easily won the $200,000 Evening Jewel Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 6½ furlongs. She took a big lead into the stretch and coasted to a 2½-length win for Hollendorfer and Van Dyke. She paid $3.00 to win as the heavy favorite.
The $200,000 Echo Eddie Stakes is the male equivalent of the Evening Jewel as far as all the conditions and was won by Lieutenant Dan. He stayed close the early parts of the race and poked his head in front at the top of the stretch and won by 2¼ lengths. He paid $10.40 to win. Steve Miyadi was the winning trainer and Geovanni Franco was the jockey.
In major Kentucky Derby prep races, Tacitus won the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by 1¼ lengths over Tax in New York. Both horses earned enough points to qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby. Tacitus paid $7.20 to win. At Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., Vekoma won the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes by 3 ½-lengths over Win Win Win, as both qualify for the Derby. Vekoma paid $4.80 to win.
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