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ARCADIA, CA – In what soon developed into a match race, Richard Mandella’s Royal Ship out-gamed Bob Baffert’s Country Grammer by a neck following a thrilling stretch duel in Saturday’s $200,000 Californian Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita.
Ridden by Mike Smith, Brazilian-bred Royal Ship got a mile and 1/8 in 1:48.47 and will now be pointed to the $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) at a mile and 1/4 on May 31.
Idle since running fifth in the Travers Stakes (G1) August 8 at Saratoga, Country Grammer was sent from his number 3 post position while Royal Ship, who had been well off the pace in his 4 stateside starts for Mandella, was hustled out of the gate and sat a close second early while applying considerable pressure to the front-runner.
A 1/2-length back at the 3 furlong pole, Royal Ship got on terms with Country Grammer a 1/4-mile out and from there, it was “game-on” as 3/5 favorite Independence Hall, who sat third throughout, was never a factor.
“Yes, we wanted to be closer today,” said Mandella, who had tried Royal Ship in 4 graded stakes dating back to August 23, with 3 of them on turf. “He’s fast enough, we didn’t need him back off the pace and getting into trouble again. He’s always trained well on dirt and the only time we ran him on it, he fell on his face leaving the gate (in the Native Diver [G3] on November 21). We didn’t have a grass race to point for, so this looked like a good spot. We’ll run in the Gold Cup next.”
Most recently a fast-finishing fifth, beaten 1 length in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) on turf March 6, Royal Ship was off at 5/1 in a field of five 3-year-olds and up and paid $13.40, $5.80, and $2.60.
“He really fought hard today,” said Smith, who has ridden him in all of his races with Mandella. “I’ve been very unlucky leaving the gate with him on several different occasions. We ran him on the dirt (at Del Mar) and ran fourth. It seems like every time I get something going my way, something pushes me back two steps and today, finally everything went our way.”
A 5-year-old gelding by Midshipman, Royal Ship is owned by Fox Hill Farms, Inc. and Siena Farm, LLC. A Group 1 and Group 3 stakes winner on grass in Brazil, the Californian marks his first win in 3 career tries on dirt and his first win in 5 graded stakes assignments for Mandella. The winner’s share of $120,000 increases his earnings to $203,305 from an overall mark of 12-6-1-2.
Ridden by Abel Cedillo, Country Grammer, who won the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) for trainer Chad Brown 2 starts back on July 16 at Saratoga, was making his first start for Baffert and ran a huge race in defeat, finishing 9 1/2 lengths in front of Independence Hall.
The second choice at 7/2, Country Grammer paid $5.00 and $2.10.
Ridden by Flavien Prat, Independence Hall, who paid $2.10 to show, demonstrated his customary tactical speed, but the top two got away from him around the far turn and he had to settle for third money, finishing 14 lengths ahead of Magic On Tap and Growth Engine.
Fractions on the race were 23.23, 46.98, 1:10.67, and 1:35.39.
Hall of Famer Mandella collected his fourth career win in the Californian, while fellow Hall of Famer Smith, who took the prestigious prep to the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1995 aboard eastern-based Concern, notched his second Californian win.
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