DONN HANDICAP | PURSE: $500,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8-MILES
Lea powered home to set a track record in Sunday's Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, holding off three-year-old champion male and 3-2 favorite Will Take Charge by 1 ½ lengths. Making just his second start for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, Lea stopped the teletimer in 1:46.86 for the 1 ⅛-mile test over the fast main track, beating the previous mark of 1:47.49 set by Quality Road in the 2010 Donn.
"The horse that was on the lead wasn't the one that I thought would be there, but it turned out to be the same type of trip that we thought we might be able to get," Mott commented. "It's always a different challenge when you move to the dirt. I felt he was capable, but the competition was stiff and we were in against a champion. We were good enough to beat him today.
"I saw when [Will Take Charge] broke free and I knew he'd be running at us," Mott added. "We were good enough to scoot away from him. It's a long year and the big races are at the end of the year, and there's a lot of good racing in between. Right now I'd love to point him for the Whitney at Saratoga."
Lea broke well from post 8 and was latched to the outside of Uncaptured, who took the opening quarter in :23 ⅖ seconds. Lea put a head in front on the backstretch to run a half-mile in :47 ⅕ seconds. Those two continued to battle it out on the front end before Lea took control around the far turn to post six furlongs in 1:10 ⅘.
The five-year-old horse pressed clear at the top of the stretch, while Will Take Charge was making up ground four wide around the turn. Will Take Charge gave it his all but had to settle for second as Lea built a three-length advantage in the stretch and was too much in the end.
"I knew turning for home the kind of horse he is," jockey Joel Rosario said. "He just never quit running, so I was very happy turning for home. I never worried about Will Take Charge coming from behind. It was all the horse. He did it so easy. The fact that he broke the track record doesn't surprise me."
Will Take Charge finished 9 ¼ lengths ahead of 44-1 longshot Viramundo, who got up for third. Bourbon Courage, Uncaptured, Neck 'n Neck, 7-2 second choice, Revolutionary, Joshua's Comprise, Macho Bull, River Seven and Romansh completed the order under the wire.
"We got blocked for a bit and couldn't get out, so we couldn't move as quickly as we wanted to," explained D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge. "That's just horse racing. We also didn't have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage. They had to set a new track record to beat us, so that's all you need to know. Kudos to the winner."
"The horse just never really fired," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Revolutionary. "We were back pretty far, which we anticipated we might be. [Jockey] Javier [Castellano] said he was reacting to the dirt hitting him and he kind of pulled him out down the backside. It's probably the wrong kind of surface for him. It's such a speed-favoring surface right now and he's a horse that's deep closer, so it was probably the wrong setup, wrong surface. We'll regroup and give him a little time and figure out something."
Lea was sent off as the 5-1 fourth choice and rewarded his supporters with $13 for the score.
Not making his first start until June of his three-year-old season, Lea won three of his first five starts, including the Commonwealth Turf at Churchill Downs. He also placed third in the Hawthorne Derby.
The chestnut's lone victory in five starts last season was in a one-mile allowance at Churchill over a sloppy main track. He subsequently finished second in the Firecracker Handicap and third in the Fourstardave Handicap, both times to Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Lea went unplaced in his final two starts, finishing fourth in the seven-furlong Forego and fifth in the nine-furlong Fayette on Polytrack, in his last start for trainer Al Stall Jr.
Bred and owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, the son of First Samurai, was exiting a 3 ¼-length win in the Hal's Hope at this venue last month and now is undefeated over the Gulfstream Park track in two starts. The chestnut banked $300,000 for his first Grade 1 win to boost his bankroll to $709,618 from a 12-6-2-2 career line.
"Whenever you have a horse with Bill Mott, you know they're going to run well," co-owner Dell Hancock said. "For him to run like that -- it's exciting. [Bill] and Walker [Hancock] talked about it and said his numbers were really good on the dirt, so here we are. He's a homebred and he's the mare's first foal, and First Samurai stands at the farm, of course."
Lea was reared by the multiple stakes-placed Galileo mare Greenery, a half-sister to multiple Grade 2 winner Grassy, Group 2 victress Lady in Waiting, Group 3 scorer Savannah Bay and Group 3-placed Desert Destiny.
Others hailing from this female family are Grade 1 winner Stroll, multiple South African Group 2 winner Welwitschia, and Group 3 hero Tremar.