Although 1-5 favorite Hot Rod Charlie won a protracted battle with front-running Eight Rings in Sunday’s $201,000 San Antonio (G2), he ultimately lost the war. C R K Stable’s Express Train chugged from just off the pace in time to nab Hot Rod Charlie at the Santa Anita wire.
Trained by John Shirreffs and ridden for the first time by Victor Espinoza, Express Train was nestled on the inside early before gradually working his way outside. Meanwhile, Hot Rod Charlie was chasing Eight Rings through fractions of :23.87, :47.37, and 1:11.89 on the fast track. The favorite was under pressure on the far turn, but responding, as he engaged Eight Rings swinging for home.
Express Train advanced into third, only to have the top two get away from him in upper stretch. The big son of Union Rags gained momentum, however, the farther they went down the lane. Just as Hot Rod Charlie was finally outdueling Eight Rings, along came Express Train to take the head-bob and finish 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.82. The 7.20-1 chance rewarded his loyalists with $16.40.
“His last two races he did not break well,” C R K’s Lee Searing said, alluding to his sixth in the Pacific Classic (G1) and distant third in the Awesome Again (G1). “Victor did a great job because everyone wanted to get in there early and he was just down on the inside. It showed he could eat some dirt today. He’s a really good horse when he is a stalker and gets to the outside. Today finally he got it at the end there. This is a nice horse, a really nice horse.”
Espinoza recapped his winning trip:
“I didn’t want to force him too hard to go outside because I didn’t want him to lose his stride. The way he has been playing, I didn’t want to discourage him during the race. It was really tight and I think I got out just in time. I was able to follow and move with Hot Rod Charlie.
“This horse takes a little bit of time at the turn, so I had to start pedaling to start following the other horses. Turning for home and squeezing for the lead is when he really accelerated. At that point I knew my only shot was to calculate him to win right at the wire. Sometimes things go the way we calculate turning for home, and sometimes they don’t. Today it worked out and we got it right at the wire.”
Hot Rod Charlie’s connections weren’t downcast, but regular rider Flavien Prat didn’t think the favorite brought his A-game.
“It was a good race. I had to keep him in the race because he wasn’t traveling super well,” Prat said. “He wasn’t traveling the way he usually does. I was really pleased with my position, and he made a good move around the quarter pole, but he just couldn’t get there in the end.”
“We got beat a bob,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “He ran great. He’s fine. We are very optimistic about the next year with him. I’m proud of him and the connections. He ran a great race.”
Eight Rings, the 6.60-1 second choice, reported home another half-length back in third. There was a 4 1/2-length gap to the 65-1 Go On in fourth, followed by Azul Coast; Extra Hope, who was also prominent through the first half-mile; and eased across the line was defending champion Kiss Today Goodbye.
Express Train was winning his third graded stakes, after the Jan. 30 San Pasqual (G2) and July 17 San Diego H. (G2). The bay was also runner-up in last December’s Malibu (G1) (to Charlatan) and the Mar. 6 Santa Anita H. (G1). His scorecard stands at 15-5-4-3, $815,800, with his thirds in the Oaklawn H. (G2), Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), and aforementioned Awesome Again.
Bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky, Express Train sold for $500,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The four-year-old was produced by I’m a Flake, a daughter of Mineshaft and multiple Grade 1 vixen November Snow, who is also the ancestress of Grade 1-winning millionaire Morning Line and ill-fated 2019 Epsom Derby (G1) hero Anthony Van Dyck.