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Express Train beats Hot Rod Charlie to take opening-day win at Santa Anita

Express Train leads the pack during the Grade II San Diego Handicap in July.
Express Train, shown here leading the pack during the Grade II San Diego Handicap in July, won the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita on Sunday.
(Kelley Carlson / Del Mar Times)

Sometimes you wonder if Santa Anita is more framed by black clouds than its signature snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains that make it one of the most picturesque horse racing facilities in the country.

The last three years have been dominated by a horrific stretch of fatalities in 2019 and then two years where the coronavirus limited both racing and fans. So, most hoped that the start of racing for 2022, which actually begins the day after Christmas, was a good chance for the track to regain its footing.

However, four inches of rain over the last couple days forced track management take more than half its 11-race card — six races — off the turf course and moved to the dirt. It resulted in 16 horses scratching from turf races rather than running on the dirt.

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Flightline continued its dominating ways, the 3-year-old winning the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes by more than 11 lengths.

But then came along yet another stirring stretch duel involving Hot Rod Charlie in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Antonio Stakes. He battled Eight Rings through the stretch until the latter tired and Express Train, blocked for much of the race, rallied on the outside to win by just a nose. It made the opening day crowd of 20,537 come to its feet with reason to believe that maybe those black clouds were lifting.

“Yeah, I did think we won,” John Shirreffs, Express Train’s trainer, said about the close finish. “But then the slow motion [replay] made it look a little closer.”

Shirreffs and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, are just as much a feel-good story as the celebrity that Hot Rod Charlie has brought to the game with the youthful exuberance of his former football playing part-owners. It’s just that Shirreffs, 76, and Espinoza, 49, have been around for a while.

It was the first time that Espinoza had ridden Express Train, although he had worked him a couple times. Sunday, it was more than a workout as Express Train got stuck on the inside with no place to go except wide, losing valuable ground.

“Victor never gave up,” Shirreffs said. “He was trapped for a long time and he got out and kept riding him and you saw the results.”

Express Train paid $16.40, $3.00 and $2.40 in the 1 1/16-mile race that was always scheduled for the dirt. Hot Rod Charlie was second followed by Eight Rings, Go On, Azul Coast, Extra Hope and Kiss Today Goodbye.

“Turning for home and squeezing for the lead is when he really accelerated,” Espinoza said. “At that point I knew my only shot was to calculate him to win right at the wire. Sometimes things go the way we calculate turning for home and sometimes they don’t. [Sunday] it worked out and we got it right at the wire.”

Shirreffs and Espinoza have had a long-standing relationship and Shirreffs and trainer Michael McCarthy were two that stood by the Hall of Fame rider after he was temporarily paralyzed after a workout spill in 2018 at Del Mar.

“I love to ride for him because for so many years when I was riding in California he has helped me out,” Espinoza said. “I know what he likes and how he trains his horses, which is amazing. He’s probably one of the best trainers ever. He shows me a lot of confidence to ride his horses, so I really do ride with confidence. … We have had a lot of success and horses run more than we expect sometimes.”

As for Hot Rod Charlie, his trainer, Doug O’Neill, while mildly disappointed, spoke highly of his colt’s effort.

Jeff Blea, leader of the investigation into the death of Medina Spirit, is hit with a 27-page accusation by the state Veterinary Medical Board.

“We got beat a bob,” O’Neill said. “He ran great and he’s fine. We are very optimistic about the next year with him. I’m proud of him and the connections. He ran a great race.”

The plans, if he comes out of the race fine, is to ship him to Dubai to run in the $10 million Dubai Cup on March 26. He’ll likely run a prep race in Dubai in February.

Shirreffs usually keeps his horses close to his Southern California operation having run Express Train just one time of his 15 lifetime starts outside of Santa Anita and Del Mar. So, he might have the Santa Anita Handicap in his future. He finished second in the race this past March.

While figuring out where a horse might race can be guesswork, the known unknown that Santa Anita must deal with all winter is the weather. With more rain expected this week, the track may cancel Thursday’s card and run an all-dirt card on Friday. A decision will be made on Monday.


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