Del Mar, California
What is it this year about great, big colts that suddenly flash on the scene in southern California to steal the show from the established names?
It is not quite the Justify story. Yet. But Catalina Cruiser, a 4-year-old that weighs more than 1,200 pounds – more than Justify – was thrust prematurely into a graded stakes that was watered down by late scratches. And in just his third career race – and his first around two turns – he won it going away.
Trained by John Sadler and ridden by Drayden Van Dyke, Catalina Cruiser (6-5) ran straight to a lead that he never gave up Saturday, stretching out to a 6¾-length victory in the $200,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on a sun-baked day at Del Mar.
“This horse’s nickname was The Best Horse Nobody Knows about,” Sadler said. “Today we changed it to The Next Big Thing.”
If not for an allowance race here Sunday that did not fill, Catalina Cruiser would still be a relative unknown. Sadler said Catalina Cruiser was supposed to be in that race. Instead, he decided Saturday morning to skip ahead.
That was when Sadler scratched likely odds-on favorite Accelerate, the 5-year-old that upset then number-one-in-the-world Arrogate in this race last summer before going 3-for-4 in graded stakes this year. Like Catalina Cruiser, he is owned by Hronis Racing. Sadler said he would put Accelerate through a timed workout Sunday and train him directly into next month’s $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic. Unless he decides to enter his new star.
“We’re not going to run two in the Pacific Classic,” Sadler said. “We’re going to run one horse to be determined.”
Had Sunday’s allowance race come together for Catalina Cruiser, Accelerate might have been getting a fusillade of accolades as the best handicap horse in the country – and he may still be. Instead, Catalina Cruiser has been, ahem, accelerated from a more modest program.
“We might have run an allowance horse and then the ($75,000 ungraded) Brubaker at the end of the meet,” Sadler said of the original plan for Catalina Cruiser. “What we were seeing in the sprint races was a route horse that could win short. You hate to go two turns in a stake (debut), but it worked out fine.”
Sired by Union Rags out of a Mineshaft dam, Catalina Cruiser broke his maiden in October and then won an optional-claiming race two months ago, both sprints at Santa Anita. That’s it. That was the entirety of his past performances.
“He’s had some little things,” Sadler said. “He actually had a little, small flake in his knee after his first start. He’s a big horse. He took time, and we gave him the time.”
After setting early fractions of 23.07 and 47.20 seconds, Catalina Cruiser was challenged by Bob Baffert-trained Dr. Dorr (5-2), the horse carrying top weight and six more pounds than the eventual winner. Two Thirty Five (6-1) also made a push, but the challenges were repelled by the time Catalina Cruiser was clocked at 1:11.64 for three-quarters of a mile. When he moved into the stretch, he led by four and cruised under the steady urging of Van Dyke to a winning time of 1:36.52 for the mile.
“I figured we’d be in front as long as someone didn’t do something stupid,” Van Dyke said. “Then he really pulled me into that first turn, and he was going easy from there.”
“My horse tried hard,” said Joe Talamo, who rode Dr. Dorr to finish second. “Hats off to the winner. He ran a huge race.”
Dabster (5-2), also trained by Baffert, made a late charge from last in the five-horse field to finish third ahead of Two Thirty Five. Harlan Punch (10-1) never figured at the betting windows or in the race; David Jacobson coasted him to finish nearly 40 lengths behind in last.
So is this another comet flashing through the sky the way Justify is – or was? And will Catalina Cruiser make us forget about Accelerate the way Justify’s Triple Crown campaign made us forget about, um, what’s his name – McKinzie?
“We’re going to see how these horses train over the track and pull up,” Sadler said.
In another gate-to-wire victory, War Heroine (5-1) held off the late charge by Ollie’s Candy (5-1) to win the $200,000 Grade 2 San Clemente Stakes. The favorite Ms Bad Behavior (5-2) stalked the lead throughout but never got closer than 1½ lengths in the stretch and settled for third.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and from major races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week handicapper Anthony Stabile and six-time champion horse owner Michael Dubb discuss the Saratoga summer.