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Hovdey: Accelerate left others spinning their wheels

Monday, March 12th, 2018

It was only a flesh wound, but the memory lingered. Victor Espinoza’s right shoulder was laced with several red scrapes, souvenirs of the close shave he experienced earlier in a day that ended with a resounding victory in the Santa Anita Handicap.

“It was in the first race,” Espinoza began. “I was on a first-time starter for Peter Miller. The horse next to me – a Baffert horse – was moving around, but I was paying attention to my own horse, trying to keep him focused and calm so he’d break nice and clean.”

Espinoza was riding the Miller colt Agent Bond. Flavien Prat was on the Bob Baffert colt, Lontani.

“Then I heard the jockey yell,” Espinoza went on. “I looked to the side and the horse is coming over the top at me. I moved away as quick as I could and almost fell off my horse. He almost hit me in the face, this close.”

Espinoza held a thumb and finger an inch apart, the difference between riding the rest of the card and a trip to the hospital to deal with the damage that could have been inflicted by the flailing feet and metal shoes of a young Thoroughbred in the throes of starting gate panic.

“So he got me here,” Espinoza said, nodding at the scrapes. “I got lucky.”

Luck is pointless, though, unless you do something with it. Five hours later, after a rain-soaked afternoon that sent drought-ridden Southern Californians scurrying for cover, the 5-year-old Accelerate carried the Hronis Racing colors to a 5 1/2-length victory over the ever-present Mubtaahij. The track, sealed and tickled open at the start of the day, was by then floated and sloppy on top after several hours of mild showers, but Santa Anita Handicaps have been run in worse weather, over worse tracks.

“That was not a big deal for me,” Espinoza said. “Usually in the first 30 yards you know if your horse is handling it. You hope your horse is just cruising along, and you can ride the race you want. If he’s not, if he’s struggling, that’s the worst feeling in the world.”

The issue is not black or white. Some horses grit their teeth and gut it out, despite a loathing for the wet, slippery ground. Espinoza, sitting second early behind Mike Smith and Mubtaahij, noticed with begrudging admiration that the pacesetter was not necessarily a happy horse.

“I could see the rider was kind of forcing him along,” Espinoza said. “It takes a great horse to still run as good as he did.”

Espinoza could afford to be generous with his praise for the beaten. He was winning the Santa Anita Handicap for the second time in his Hall of Fame career, the first coming in 2004 aboard Southern Image. Accelerate’s reputation as a classy middle-distance horse who rarely has a bad day must now be adjusted to accommodate his two most recent wins at nine and 10 furlongs.

His trainer, John Sadler, leavened the thrill of his first Santa Anita Handicap victory with a dose of reality.

“I think you’ll find that a sealed, sloppy track like this will help a good mile-and-an-eighth horse get a mile and a quarter,” Sadler said as he watched a replay of the race. “And I think Accelerate is a very good mile-and-an-eighth horse.”

Someone asked Sadler if he was worried about Mubtaahij, the “Baffert horse,” rolling along uncontested on the lead.

“There’s always a Baffert horse,” Sadler said with a resigned laugh. “He’s got all the best older horses. But our horse has held his own against them.”

Even before etching his name in the history books Saturday, Accelerate had been more than an accomplished footnote. As a 3-year-old in 2016 he won stakes at Del Mar and Los Alamitos before finishing a respectable third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Last year, Accelerate ran well in losing efforts to the Baffert runners Collected and Danzing Candy, but he made national headlines when he won the San Diego Handicap in which Arrogate finished fourth.

Accelerate has yet to encounter West Coast, Baffert’s current leader of the pack, but hopefully that day will come. Sadler was determined to enjoy last Saturday as long as he could before turning the page on his first win in the Handicap after 10 tries.

“I’m still smiling,” Sadler said Monday when reached at the 2-year-old sales in Ocala. “I got a quick look at him Sunday morning before getting on the plane and he looked fine. We’ll take our time now to decide what’s next. He’s certainly not a used-up horse.”

Accelerate has started 17 times, with six wins and another nine placings. His sire, Lookin At Lucky, is by Smart Strike, which did nothing to harm Accelerate’s chances in the slop. For Sadler, who grew up in nearby Pasadena in the thick of the Santa Anita scene, it was the most exciting Handicap in nearly a half-century, when as a young teen he watched Quicken Tree come from last place to beat Fiddle Isle in 1970.

“Quicken Tree was owned by Lou Rowan, a good friend of my father’s,” Sadler said. “The Santa Anita Handicap has always been a race I’ve wanted to win.”

And now the drought is over.

“Right,” Sadler replied. “Oh, you mean the rain.”

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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