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DEL MAR, CA – When trainer John Shirreffs’ 24/1 longshot Astronaut crossed the wire a 1/2-length ahead in a blanket finish to Saturday’s $300,000 Del Mar Handicap (G2) presented by The Japan Racing Association, it capped a record-breaking 11-race card that saw $36,005,613 wagered, smashing the 2018 Pacific Classic card’s previous record of $25,870,431.
The Del Mar Handicap is a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event, with Astronaut receiving an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar this November.
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Astronaut broke from post 10 under Victor Espinoza and settled off the pace as 2019 race champion Acclimate posted fractions of :25.24, :49.25, 1:14.28, and 1:39.32 for the opening mile.
The 1 3/8-mile turf marathon turned into an all-out sprint at the top of the stretch as Acclimate struggled to hold his advantage while the rest of the field began to swarm.
Espinoza tipped Astronaut out three-wide while cornering and pinned in the 2/1 favorite United until the top of the stretch, when Espinoza unleashed him in the clear.
Astronaut launched his way past Acclimate just inside the 1/8 pole and had enough steam to outkick the late-running Master Piece and a finally-free United to win by a 1/2-length in 2:15.97.
“We changed the way he ran a little bit today,” Espinoza said. “I just let him break and get into rhythm. If he was happy, I was happy. He wasn’t up on the bridle and running so easily that when we got to the 1/2-mile pole, I started to get a little excited. When I asked him, he finished strong for me, and it makes me happy to win this race for John. We have a very good relationship. He’s always been there for me and I’ve been there for him.”
Master Piece rallied from next to last in his west coast debut for new trainer Michael McCarthy but came up just short while finishing a neck and a nose clear of Acclimate and United, respectively.
Defending champion Red King finished in a dead heat for fifth with Say the Word, while behind them came Arklow, Crossfirehurricane, Award Winner, Media Blitz, and Masteroffoxhounds to complete the order of finish.
Astronaut’s win was his first since breaking his maiden 4 starts back at Santa Anita Park while going 1 1/8 miles and followed 3 straight runner-up finishes, including last time out in the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano Stakes (G3) behind Acclimate. The 4-year-old Quality Road colt’s career record now stands at 9-2-5-0 with $285,860 earned.
“I’m just so happy for Astronaut and his connections; they are really great owners and it’s great to win for them,” said Shirreffs. “We wanted to run him long, but we weren’t sure how long, and when he ran so well going a mile and 3/4, it seemed like this was possible.”
Astronaut returned $50 to win, $21.20 to place, and $10.60 to show. Master Piece brought back $25 to place and $14.80 to show. Acclimate paid $8 to show.
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