DEL MAR, CA – A tight stretch run came down to the wire, with Curlin Road edging the heavy favorite Hard Aces by a nose to take the Grade 3, $100,000 Cougar II Handicap on Wednesday at Del Mar.
Showing no signs of fatigue after winning a mile-long race just 10 days prior at Los Alamitos, Curlin Road and jockey Flavien Prat closely stalked the lead along the rail for most of the 1 1/2-mile trip. The John Sadler-trained Infobedad led the field through fractions of :24.70, :49.35, 1:14.28, and 1:40.22 before his Hronis Racing stablemate Hard Aces overtook him through the far turn.
As the field made its way off the turn, Hard Aces and jockey Santiago Gonzalez initially looked to be well on their way to defending their 2016 Cougar II title. When Hard Aces seemed to veer slightly while hitting the stretch, though, it was enough to slow his momentum and allow Curlin Road the chance to gain ground.
The pair battled tightly together through the stretch run, bumping together more than once, before Curlin Road put a nose in front at the wire to spring the upset.
“My horse was game,” said Prat. “He wanted to win that race. We (he and Hard Aces) came together, but I thought that was mostly him pushing on me. It worked out for the best.”
After the race, Gonzalez lodged a complaint, citing interference through the stretch run. While the stewards ultimately moved to make no changes after reviewing the footage, Gonzalez felt that the bumping prevented the repeat.
“He ran really well,” Gonzalez said. “The bumping cost me. If I don’t get bumped, I think I win.”
Noble Nick was the strongest of the rest, finishing 6 1/2 lengths behind the leaders in third. Infobedad, French Getaway, Big John B, and Giant Influence completed the order of finish.
Trainer Doug O’Neill claimed Curlin Road for $40,000 in April after finishing third in a Santa Anita optional-claim race. With the winner’s share of $60,000, the 4-year-old gelding out of Curlin has already more than repaid his new ownership group of R3 Racing LLC, Calara Farms, and ERJ Racing, LLC. The stakes win was the first of the Del Mar meet for O’Neill and his second in the Cougar II (in 2013 with Richard’s Kid).
“When he stepped into our stable, we knew he was a special horse,” said O’Neill assistant Leandro Mora. “All we needed to do was make him healthy and happy enough, and he’s paying us back. We were right this time (bringing him back on 10 days rest); it was a decision by the owner and Doug.”
Curlin Road returned $21.40 to win, $8 to place, and $5 to show. Hard Aces brought back $3.20 to place and $2.60 to show, while Noble Nick paid $6.20 to show.