December 4, 2022

Royal Ship sails past Country Grammer in San Diego

Royal Ship with Mike Smith riding wins the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

Dubai World Cup (G1) hero Country Grammer was sent off as the 2-1 favorite in his comeback in Saturday’s $302,000 San Diego H. (G2), but his old archrival Royal Ship was too sharp in the 1 1/16-mile test. Trained by Richard Mandella and piloted by Mike Smith, the 9.50-1 chance swept 2 1/4 lengths clear in the local prep for the Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar.

Royal Ship and Country Grammer traded decisions in their past meetings in the spring of 2021. While Royal Ship edged a ring-rusty Country Grammer in the 1 1/8-mile Californian (G2), the Bob Baffert runner turned the tables in their rematch over 1 1/4 miles in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1).

A similar dynamic may be in play during the Del Mar summer. The San Diego offers a parallel with the 2021 Californian: once again, Country Grammer was using the shorter race as a tightener for his main aim at his preferred 1 1/4-mile distance, this time, the Pacific Classic.

Royal Ship was on a rebound mission in the San Diego. Last seen fading to third in his Hollywood Gold Cup title defense on May 30, the Brazilian import was back to his best here.

Defunded, Country Grammer’s stablemate and the 7-2 second choice, hustled to take the lead from Stilleto Boy through an opening quarter in :23.71. Country Grammer was well placed in a stalking third, but found himself joined by an early move from Royal Ship. Initially farther back in seventh, Royal Ship boldly advanced into fourth by the half in :47.44. That encouraged Country Grammer to take close order lest he be pocketed.

The top four were virtually abreast rounding the far turn in 1:11.19. Defunded was just clinging on from Stilleto Boy at that point, but Country Grammer was responding, and Royal Ship was circumnavigating them all. Entering the stretch, Royal Ship pulled away from a staying-on Country Grammer and posted a final time of 1:42.75.

Country Grammer, the 125-pound highweight who was conceding five pounds to Royal Ship, was 4 1/4 lengths clear of Stilleto Boy. This is the kind of performance that Country Grammer can build upon.

Mandaloun, the 4-1 third pick, was wrestled back when rank early and belatedly got up for fourth. Next came Parnelli, Tripoli, Defunded, Senor Buscador, and There Goes Harvard, who ran here in lieu of Sunday’s Eddie Read (G2).

Absent from the winner’s circle festivities was Mandella, who is ill with COVID at home. Son Gary is filling in for the time being.

“We’re going to enjoy this and figure the next race after that; this is a good one and we’re gonna enjoy it for a while,” the younger Mandella said.

“(Smith) had a lot of horse under him and he’s keeping the favorite in his sights. That’s what makes Mike great; he made all the right calls, put the horse in position he could win, and got it done. ”

Smith described the rationale for his early move.

“I wasn’t going to take anything away from him today. If he wanted to go, he could go. He was rolling on the backside and just kept going.

“I hope this win helps Mr. Mandella feel better,” Smith added. “He and his son get all the credit with this horse.”

Fox Hill Farms and Siena Farm’s Royal Ship was earning his sixth career stakes victory, and first at Del Mar. A three-time stakes winner in his native Brazil, he scored his signature win in the 2020 Estado do Rio de Janeiro (G1). The son of Midshipman placed third in his U.S. debut in that year’s Del Mar Mile (G2) on turf, but didn’t break through stateside until the 2021 Californian.

Royal Ship regressed after his tough beat in the Gold Cup, winding up third in last year’s San Diego and seventh in the Pacific Classic. He returned triumphant in the April 10 John Shear Mile at Santa Anita, his prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup. His scorecard now stands at 18-8-2-4, $570,405.

Bred by Haras Belmont, Royal Ship is a half-brother to multiple Brazilian Group 3 winners King Four and Royal Forestry. Their dam, the Val Royal mare Bela Val, hails from the further family of champion Soberbo.