Leprechaun Kid, claimed for $80,000 a month ago, turned out to be a good luck charm for trainer Mike Mitchell and struggling jockey Tyler Baze in Sunday's $250,000 Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT).
The imposing 6-year-old bright gray gelding, carrying 113 pounds, won a desperate fight to the wire over the luckless Laura's Lucky Boy to gut out a nose victory in the 1 3/8-mile turf test for his first graded stakes win in a 38-race career.
In a superbly paced ride by Baze, who came into the weekend's action with just eight wins in 167 starts (5%) at the current meeting, the pacesetting son of Alphabet Soup had just enough left in the tank to hold off Laura's Lucky Boy.
The challenger, who was coming off a stakes win via disqualification at the meet, appeared poised to roll on by in deep stretch for jockey Corey Nakatani. But after heading Leprechaun Kid with a furlong to go, Laura's Lucky Boy could not get past on the outside and came up just short as the two rivals lunged toward the wire. Laura's Lucky Boy carried the co-top weight of 118 pounds.
Baze, who teamed with Mitchell to win last year's edition of the Del Mar Handicap with another gray gelding, Star Over the Bay, had been winless for three weeks before breaking through earlier on Sunday's card. The victory with the newly-claimed Leprechaun Kid was an emotional one because of the close relationship rider and trainer had with the multiple graded stakes-winning Star Over the Bay, a Mitchell claim who suffered a serious injury while competing in a $2 million Singapore race earlier this year and was subsequently euthanized.
"He's an awesome horse," the 23-year-old Baze said. "I worked him one morning for Mike and told him he reminded me of Star. He is so game, he reminds me of Star so much. Corey went by me at least a head today, but my horse was game. He's awesome. Star was my favorite horse of all time, but now I've got another one."
Leprechaun Kid employs a similar front-running style to Star Over the Bay. Left alone on the front end, Leprechaun Kid opened up a five-length advantage on Laura's Lucky Boy on the backstretch while carving easy fractions of :24 3/5, :49 1:13 2/5 and 1:38. As the rest of the stalkers began to fall back, Laura's Lucky Boy came on, cutting into the big lead on the final turn. He trailed by just a couple of lengths at the head of the stretch, but the winner proved too stubborn in an exhilarating finish. Leprechaun Kid drifted out a bit through the lane.
"We lost Star Over the Bay early in the year, and it's been pretty emotional," Mitchell said. "This horse chased Star in some races and I thought he was a lot like Star, had the same kind of running style. I opened up blinkers on him so he could see other horses and when he saw that other horse coming to him he was able to see him and dig in and come back. Just like last year with Star, I thought at the eighth pole I was beat.
"I had to put a bunch of people together to claim (Leprechaun Kid), just like Star, and the first guy I wanted to put on him was Tyler because I thought he'd fit the horse. When I was training him he reminded me so much of Star I just decided to send him to the lead and let them try and catch him."
"It was a two-horse race," Nakatani said. "My horse was laying his body down and I got about a head or so in front. But the leader had such an easy time of it up front that he had enough left to come back and get me. We're still figuring this horse out. But no doubt he's a good one."
In his first start for Mitchell, who wins at a 28% clip off the claim, and his new owners Scott Anastasi, Landon Vaughn and James Ukegawa, et al, Leprechaun Kid ended a five-race losing streak while winning for the first time in 2005. The victory was his first in five starts at the 1 3/8-mile distance and improved his lifetime mark on the Del Mar turf to 3-0-3 in nine starts. The victory was Leprechaun Kid's seventh overall and increased his lifetime earnings to $418,574.
Adena Springs bred the winner in Kentucky.
It was four lengths back to the third-place finisher Exterior, who nosed 24-1 shot Continental Red for the show spot. The final time for the 11 furlongs on hard going was 2:12 4/5, four-fifths of a second off the turf course track record.
Sarafan, who defeated Laura's Lucky Boy in the Escondido Aug. 3 only to be disqualified by the stewards for interference near the wire, had to be eased approaching the backstretch Sunday and was vanned off. The 8-year-old gelding, a winner of more than $2.6 million, apparently injured his right front leg.
Alex Solis, who rode Sarafan, said, "When we went into the (clubhouse) turn and he switched leads, he took a couple of funny steps. I pulled him up. I could tell something wasn't right and I pulled him up. It didn't appear to be anything life threatening, but he was walking 'off' in his right front."
Overlooked in the wagering in the 10-horse field, Leprechaun Kid paid $18.20, $8.20 and $5.40. Laura's Lucky Boy returned $6.20 and $4. Exterior's show was $4.20. The $2 exacta was worth $103.20.
The 2-1 favorite Runaway Dancer was far back early and ran on a bit in the stretch to finish fifth, one length behind Continental Red. He was followed across the line by Sunset Breeders' Cup (gr. IIT) winner Always First, Outta Here, Kilkea Castle and Continuously.
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