DEL MAR, CA – Not unlike the ultimate decision rendered in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Big Returns found himself the benefactor of a disqualified rival and was named winner of Friday’s $100,000 Graduation Stakes for juvenile California-breds at Del Mar.
Breaking from post 3 as the 6/5 favorite under Ruben Fuentes, Big Returns soon settled close behind the early co-leaders Shady Empire and Bluegrass Faith while Pas de Panique raced to his outside. Heading into the far turn, Big Returns looked loaded, but Fuentes had to wait for an opening. Square Deal soon made a run past Big Returns and created a four-wide wall as the field approached the top of the stretch.
Big Returns straightened up ready to explode, but Fuentes had to steer him back and forth while searching in vain for space. Finally, Fuentes was able to veer to the far outside just as he passed the 1/8 pole. Big Returns quickly extended his stride and began reeling in new leader Square Deal while racing just behind Pas de Panique.
Near the 1/16 pole, Square Deal began veering in, which caused Pas de Panique to pull up and steady. Big Returns shifted out in kind, though he quickly recovered and continued running strongly, even passing Pas de Panique late.
Nobody was able to catch Square Deal before he crossed the finish line, but the stewards conducted an inquiry into the stretch run interference. Following a review, the stewards disqualified Square Deal to third, believing that his interference had caused Pas de Panique to lose a chance at placing second. Thanks to the trouble in the stretch, Big Returns was named the winner.
“Oh, yeah, all sorts of trouble out there,” Fuentes said. “When (Square Deal) shifted in, he cost (Pas de Panique) and (Bluegrass Faith) to both lose a placing. I had to shift out and lose ground. I was steadying with (Big Returns) all down the backside. He did well to get the win here.”
Bluegrass Faith faded to fourth, heading Darnquick for that position, while Shady Empire and Bam Bam Again were a nose and a head behind to complete the blanket finish.
Bulletproof One, the lone filly entry, scratched in favor of competing in Wednesday’s CTBA Stakes, which she won. Also scratched were Fast Enough and Project Leader.
Big Returns’ win was his second in as many career starts, having broken his maiden here on July 20 by 7 1/4 lengths. The 2-year-old son of Mr. Big increased his career earnings mark to $93,600 and could show up next in the Del Mar Futurity Stakes (G1) for owner William Peeples.
“I thought he could be put up,” Mendez said of the stewards’ decision. “The rider had to bring him up, big-time, and that caused him to lose momentum. He had space to go through but had to pull up. I’m happy with what they did. They did the right thing.
“When he came out of the gate, the second jump, he kind of stumbled, but he came back like a champion,” Mendez explained after winning his first career stakes race. “We’ll see how he comes out of the race and make sure he’s OK and go from there, but I’m excited about this horse. We might go to the Futurity.”
Big Returns paid $4.40 to win, $2.80 to place, and $2.40 to show. Pas de Panique brought back $4 to place and $3.80 to show, while Square Deal paid $5.60 to show.