ARCADIA, CA – Zayat Stables’ Desert Stone showed no signs of rust from his seven-month layoff on Saturday, rallying late to nail Cleopatra’s Strike at the wire in the $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park.

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Breaking from the rail under Geovanni Franco at 7/1 odds, Desert Stone was content to watch from the rear as the field passed the judges for the first time. On the other end, Overdue shot out to an early lead and posted fractions of :24.26, :48.18, and 1:11.65 while Majestic Eagle stalked the closest.

Midway through the far turn, Majestic Eagle ranged up and took over command, but the 6/5 favorite Cleopatra’s Strike found running room and began closing from mid-pack. The bettors’ choice held the lead momentarily, but Franco had put Desert Stone into high gear at the top of the stretch with his eyes on the front end.

Desert Stone locked horns with Cleopatra’s Strike near the 1/16 pole, and though Cleopatra’s Strike fought valiantly, he was unable to withstand his foe’s onslaught. The Richard Baltas-trained Desert Stone crossed a neck ahead in a final time of 1:47.63 for the 1 1/8-mile event over the firm turf course.

Credit: Ernie Belmonte

“I could see everybody bunching up and I knew the pace was pretty slow, but my horse was just waiting for me to turn him loose, so I didn’t worry about it,” Franco said. “He’s always a handful, but he’s just doing really good. We expected him to run good today and I was very happy with the way he ran from off the pace. I’ve worked him a lot and he likes me and I like him.”

Cleopatra’s Strike was forced to settle for second by a narrow margin for the second straight year, having missed by a nose in the 2019 edition. Majestic Eagle faded to third, just holding off Chosen Vessel by a 1/2-length.

North County Guy headed a tiring Overdue for fifth, while Acker was a 1/2-length behind them to complete the order of finish.

Desert Stone’s win was his first since taking back-to-back local events in the summer of 2018 and improved his overall record to 16-3-2-2. The Irish-bred 5-year-old son of Fastnet Rock, purchased for $374,233 as a yearling, has now earned $332,662.

“He’s healthy now,” Baltas said regarding Desert Stone’s layoff since finishing ninth in the Shoemaker Mile Stakes (G1) here on May 27. “You can’t change the horse’s style; he runs from behind, and Geovanni Franco is the only guy that knows how to ride him. If you look at his form, this horse just likes this jockey. He has a mind of his own; when he wants to run, he’ll run, and Geovanni lets him do his thing.”

Desert Stone returned $16.20 to win, $5.60 to place, and $4 to show. Cleopatra’s Strike brought back $3 to place and $2.40 to show, while Majestic Eagle paid $3.20 to show.