November 29, 2021

Express Train back on winning track in San Diego

Express Train fends off Tripoli (left) and Royal Ship (rail) in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar © BENOIT PHOTO

After three straight losses, Express Train got back on the winning track in Saturday’s $251,500 San Diego H. (G2) at Del Mar. The John Shirreffs trainee responded to more aggressive tactics by jockey Juan Hernandez and repelled every challenge in this local prep for the Aug. 21 Pacific Classic (G1).

Express Train broke much better than last time in the May 31 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), when his wayward start compromised his chances and resulted in a distant third. Allowing Hernandez to put him right into the game early, the 2.90-1 shot pressed pacesetting Rushie through fractions of :22.97 and :47.16. Express Train took over after the six-furlong mark in 1:12.23, putting away Rushie on the rail as well as outside stalker Mo Mosa.

But the race was far from over, and Express Train found himself besieged on both sides again in deep stretch. Royal Ship, the 1.70-1 favorite after his victory in the Californian S. (G2) and near-miss in the Gold Cup, got a dream run on the inside. As Royal Ship sailed through to confront Express Train, Tripoli closed menacingly wider out.

Express Train held both of them in tenacious fashion. A half-length up on Tripoli at the wire, with Royal Ship another away three-quarters of a length astern in third, Express Train finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.37.

“He broke real sharp today, and that was the key,” Hernandez told Del Mar publicity. “I stayed aggressive with him; he likes it and runs well when you do. We had a good spot until the quarter pole and then I really got after him. He was responding well and then those other horses came up on him and he dug in again. He’s a tough one.” 

Shirreffs likewise commented on the winning tactics.

“I thought he was in a good spot the whole way, right off Rushie, and then when he was asked in the stretch he responded well,” his trainer said. “The Pacific Classic, that would be the goal if everything works out.” 

Mo Mosa, who was boxing on well until late, tired to fourth. Magic on Tap wound up fifth after a stumbling start. Concluding the order under the wire were Rushie; Sheriff Brown, who was detached early thanks to his troubled break; and a wide-trip Kiss Today Goodbye, who improved position briefly before dropping back. Heywoods Beach was scratched in favor of Sunday’s Cougar II S. (G3).

C R K Stable’s Express Train has compiled a record of 12-4-4-2, $659,300. Second to Charlatan in last December’s Malibu S. (G1), the son of Union Rags scored his first stakes win in the Jan. 30 San Pasqual S. (G2). He appeared on his way to victory in the Santa Anita H. (G1), only to be run down by Idol. Shipping outside of California for the first time, Express Train was third in the Oaklawn H. (G2) to Silver State before his Gold Cup disappointment back at Santa Anita.

Yet the $500,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase isn’t a typical late developer. Express Train was forward enough to debut here in the summer of 2019, although a well-beaten second to Eight Rings. The step up to a mile maiden later that August stamped him as potentially special, for Express Train romped by 14 1/4 lengths. That effort propelled him to the American Pharoah S. (G1), but he regressed to fourth.

Off for nearly a year, Express Train wasn’t ready for even the pandemic-delayed classics of 2020. The bay renewed his affinity for Del Mar, however, with a terrific comeback score in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance.

With a 4-3-1-0 mark at the seaside oval, Express Train promises to be a key player in the Pacific Classic, a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). He won’t mind that Del Mar hosts the Breeders’ Cup this year either.

Express Train was bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky. His dam, I’m a Flake, is a daughter of Mineshaft and multiple Grade 1 winner November Snow. That Storm Cat mare is also the ancestress of ill-fated 2019 Epsom Derby (G1) hero Anthony Van Dyck, New Zealand champion Bounding, Australian Group 2-winning sire Kuroshio, and Grade 1 millionaire Morning Line.