Runner-up to Saudi Cup-bound Charlatan in the Dec. 26 Malibu (G1), C R K Stables’ Express Train put it all together in a resounding stakes breakthrough in Saturday’s $200,000 San Pasqual S. (G2) at Santa Anita.
The John Shirreffs pupil had sparked hopes as a juvenile, when conquering a Del Mar mile maiden by 14 lengths. But after a lackluster fourth in the 2019 American Pharoah (G1), Express Train didn’t race again until last summer at Del Mar. He made a winning comeback from his 11-month layoff, closing from well back in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance. Up to a mile for a second-level allowance at Santa Anita Sept. 26, Express Train was outfoxed by the older Extra Hope. A turf experiment in the Twilight Derby (G2) didn’t work out as he wound up eighth, but his best-of-the-rest performance in the Malibu portended better things to come.
Express Train went off as the 2.60-1 second choice in the San Pasqual, with bettors making Idol the even-money favorite. Idol took too long to get into gear from the rear, while Express Train had the tactical speed to secure good position with Juan Hernandez.
Tizamagician went forward from his rail post to set the pace, stalked by Zestful through splits of :23.84, :48.74, and 1:13.70 on the good track. King Guillermo initially tried to be part of the mix, only to settle in the next flight with the ground-saving Express Train. When King Guillermo came up empty approaching the far turn, Express Train had all the room to maneuver out into the clear.
Meanwhile, Zestful was accosting Tizamagician turning into the stretch, but neither could contain an Express Train gathering momentum wider out. The son of Union Rags steamed past them both in midstretch and drew off by three lengths, completing 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.13 on a surface that was demanding.
A gritty Tizamagician boxed on to salvage second by a neck from the belatedly rallying Idol. Zestful weakened late to fourth, and King Guillermo was a long-way last.
Express Train’s first stakes win improved his scorecard to 8-3-3-0, $293,300. Bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky, the bay sold for $500,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. His dam, I’m a Flake, is a daughter of Mineshaft and multiple Grade 1 star November Snow, who is also the ancestress of New Zealand champion sprinter Bounding, ill-fated Derby (G1) hero Anthony Van Dyck, and Grade 1-winning millionaire Morning Line.
That distance range is also evident in Express Train.
“He loves going short and going long, so you can do whatever you want with him,” Hernandez said after the San Pasqual. “He’s a really nice horse.
“The boss, Mr. Shirreffs, just told me to have a good trip. There were three horses that tried to go to the lead, and my horse relaxed pretty well behind them, and I was just waiting to put him in the stretch to let him run, that’s what I did. Around the turn before the stretch, I checked, I went outside, I was clear and he started running again.
“I want to thank the owners and the trainer for this beautiful opportunity. Thanks guys.”
Shirreffs was complimentary of Hernandez.
“We knew there was plenty of speed in the race and it worked out fine,” the trainer said. “Juan fits this horse very well – show me a horse he doesn’t fit. When you speak to him, he exudes confidence. He’s a rider. We’ll stay home and run in the Big ‘Cap (Mar. 6 Santa Anita H. [G1]).”