May 27, 2024

Express Train outduels Warrant in Santa Anita Handicap

Express Train, with Victor Espinoza up, wins the Santa Anita Handicap (Photo by Horsephotos)

C R K Stable’s Express Train suffered a heartbreaker when collared late in the 2021 Santa Anita H. (G1), but the 11-10 favorite would not be denied the trophy in Saturday’s $651,000 renewal. Grappling with Warrant for the length of the Santa Anita stretch, Express Train was relentless as he outlasted his game foe by a head.

Jockey Victor Espinoza was winning his third Big ‘Cap, after Southern Image (2004) and Accelerate (2018), and the Hall of Famer savored the chance to give trainer John Shirreffs a first.

“I always look forward to a chance to win this race,” Espinoza said. “This year was a little more special for John. I really wanted to get a win for him after so many years.”

Express Train was breaking through at the top level after a series of placings. Aside from the Big ‘Cap, the big bay had been runner-up in the 2020 Malibu (G1) and third in last season’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) and Awesome Again (G1). He missed the Breeders’ Cup due to a setback, but hasn’t lost since.

Victorious over Hot Rod Charlie in the Dec. 26 San Antonio (G2), Express Train successfully defended his title in the Feb. 5 San Pasqual (G2). That marked the first time he’d ever won back-to-back races. The mature five-year-old made it a hat trick on Saturday, finally establishing his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles to reach a new career high.

Express Train’s winning streak coincides with his picking up Espinoza. The duo are now unbeaten together, and Shirreffs noted how well Espinoza “gets along with Express Train.” Espinoza kept the son of Union Rags in his comfort zone, reserved just off the pace, in the clear.

American Theorem was prominent with the rail-drawn Spielberg through the opening quarter in :23, but took up the baton turning into the backstretch. Warrant stalked in third through the half in :45.97 and advanced to prompt through six furlongs in 1:11.39.

Express Train crept nearer himself. When Warrant ratcheted up the pressure on the far turn, Express Train moved with him, and American Theorem retreated. The stage was set for the pulsating stretch drive, as the top two pulled away.

Warrant had his head in front passing the mile in 1:37.20, but Express Train got the upper hand swinging into the stretch. Then a resilient Warrant fought back on the inside, and the duelists matched strides.

Express Train appeared to have his measure, if only Espinoza could cajole the maximum effort. The 124-pound highweight ultimately won the war of wills in 2:03.22.

Warrant, in receipt of three pounds, was nine lengths clear of third-placer Stilleto Boy. Spielberg wound up fourth, followed by Why Why Paul Why, American Theorem, and Soy Tapatio. Kiss Today Goodbye was scratched.

“As soon as he’s in front, he knows he’s got it,” Espinoza said of Express Train. “He just gave me a little bit of a hard time at the end to get me excited and pump up my muscles. I thought it was an exciting race. He is a powerful horse and he needs to find rhythm. It doesn’t matter how wide I go on the turns, as long as he is comfortable enough to stretch his legs and do his thing.”

Espinoza also praised the horsemanship of Shirreffs and his entire barn.

“Express Train is amazing. John Shirreffs has done an amazing job with this horse. To be able to keep him on track and train him race by race requires teamwork. John Shirreffs has an amazing team and everyone is important. It makes my job easier when it comes to the race.”

“It feels great,” Shirreffs said. “It’s just thrilling, exciting, wonderful. You dream about winning the Santa Anita H., and to actually have it happen and with a horse like Express Train, who has done everything (right) along the way. He’s made the little steps, the big steps. He participated in all the big races we had in the West Coast and he’s been there and shown up.

“It was a Hall of Fame ride because (Warrant with Flavien Prat) wasn’t going anywhere and he just kept kicking in and digging in, and I thought I got away from him and he came back on. It was a great ride by both.”

Shirreffs expressed his delight for Lee Searing of C R K Stable.

“Lee Searing has to be thrilled, over the moon. He’s been such a patron of the sport, and it’s just great.”

Express Train became a millionaire while earning his Grade 1 victory. The earner of $1,325,800 from a 17-7-4-3 line, he has won or placed in 10 stakes. In addition to his Big ‘Cap, San Antonio and two San Pasquals, his other stakes score came in last summer’s San Diego H. (G2). Alongside his aforementioned Grade 1 placings, Express Train was a near-miss third in the Oaklawn H. (G2).

Bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky, the $500,000 Keeneland September yearling is out of I’m a Flake, a daughter of Mineshaft and multiple Grade 1 star November Snow. This is the family of Anthony Van Dyck, the 2019 Epsom Derby (G1) hero; New Zealand champion sprinter Bounding; and Grade 1-winning millionaire Morning Line.