SANTA BARBARA H. | PURSE: $150,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | FILLIES & MARES | GRADE 2 | 1 1/4 MILES
Hronis Racing's Lady of Shamrock prevailed as the 1-5 favorite in Saturday's Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Barbara Handicap, but only after the stewards demoted the first-past-the-post Viva Carina. Lady of Shamrock was tightened up and steadied as she rallied on the inside of the pacesetting Viva Carina, who came in slightly under right-handed urging. No sooner had Viva Carina pulled 1 1/2 lengths clear than the stewards posted the inquiry sign, and after reviewing the video, disqualified the 8-1 chance for interference.
Rafael Bejarano, Lady of Shamrock's rider, believed that Victor Espinoza, aboard Viva Carina, wasn't aware of his coming through on the inside.
"I don't think he knew I was there," Bejarano said. "I tried to come running, but I also wasn't screaming and didn't let him know. He was surprised -- it wasn't his fault. His filly just kept coming in.
"I tried to sneak through there -- it wasn't his fault. I always make sure I have plenty of room, but sometimes the horses on the lead come in or change direction. That's part of the game."
"He [Bejarano] had her rolling," winning trainer John Sadler said, "and it looked like she had room and he was going to get there, so I thought it was the right call on the stewards' decision, obviously, so we're going to take it."
Kosta Hronis was philosophical about the verdict in favor of his filly.
"It's tough to lose that way, and it's tough to win that way," Hronis said of the inquiry. "We look forward to running again, and let the chips fall where they may. We're very honored to be part of the industry, and proud to be leading owner again [at Santa Anita], we're very happy."
In a race devoid of significant early speed, Viva Carina attempted to steal the race with Espinoza. The A.C. Avila trainee got away with pedestrian splits of :25, :49 4/5 and 1:14 2/5 on the firm Santa Anita turf. The Only Key stalked in second, followed by Caelis and Double Ante, and Lady of Shamrock was unhurried at the rear of the short field.
The order was unchanged until the far turn, when Lady of Shamrock began to unwind. The odds-on choice saved all the ground by hugging the fence, and Bejarano stayed to the inside path even when he could have tipped out around the front runner in the stretch.
Meanwhile, Viva Carina had injected a serious bit of pace to reach the mile mark in 1:37 4/5, and she was still finding plenty on the front end. Lady of Shamrock, who was advancing in the teeth of that pace, continued to gain ground and was nearly alongside Viva Carina when the incident occurred.
Responding to Espinoza's right-handed whip, Viva Carina drifted a touch off a true line. She came in just enough into Lady of Shamrock's path to cause Bejarano to take up. Lady of Shamrock wasn't seriously pressed afterward, and Viva Carina drew off to complete 1 1/4 grassy miles in 2:00 4/5.
After the disqualification, Lady of Shamrock paid $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10.
"I was a little worried about the pace," Bejarano said, "and the horse on the lead was going really slow, so I just tried to save ground on both turns.
"When I saw the opportunity on the rail in the stretch, and I saw a lot of room, I just kept running. But unfortunately when Victor used the right-hand stick, his horse kept coming in and completely crossed my lane, and I was completely on her heels so I didn't have any choice but to hold my horse and stop riding a little, and then letting her go again."
"If you watch the head-on," Sadler noted, "there's plenty of room in there, but I think it was the right call. The pace was slow, so you've got to close into that, and the course has been a little speed-favoring."
Viva Carina was relegated to second, to the dismay of her connections.
"I tightened up a little bit, but I don't think that caused any change of place in [Rafael's] horse," Espinoza said. "In my opinion, I win the race, there was no way he was going to beat me. The stewards get paid to make these decisions, so I cannot tell them what to do, or predict what they will do."
"No comment," trainer A.C. Avila said, later adding, "It's disappointing. We'll regroup. They'll see us again."
Caelis, who was a length astern of Lady of Shamrock at the wire, remained in third. The Only Key and Double Ante rounded out the order of finish, and Long Face and Moone's My Name were scratched.
Lady of Shamrock's resume now reads 13-7-2-1, $825,400. The daughter of Scat Daddy was the leading three-year-old turf filly of 2012, with victories in the American Oaks, Del Mar Oaks, Providencia and China Doll, and a near-miss in the Honeymoon Handicap.
Although Lady of Shamrock missed her intended prep for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, she still rattled home a fine fifth, despite trouble. She returned to action with a late-running second in the March 24 Santa Ana, and got back to the winner's circle here.
Sadler indicated that Lady of Shamrock might get some help in the form of a pacemaker in the future.
"She's gotten very relaxed this year, so it's pretty scary," Sadler said. "She wants to sit back and close, and she had to give away a lot of weight on top of it [spotting Viva Carina eight pounds as the 123-pound highweight], so I'm going to go out and try to find her a rabbit."
Hronis hopes to end her 2013 campaign back at Santa Anita, with another crack at the Filly & Mare Turf over the Santa Barbara course and distance.
"She's got a schedule," Hronis said. "We'll go to Hollywood [for the Gamely on May 27] and Del Mar and hopefully we'll come back here the first weekend in November and again, let the chips fall where they may -- without the extra weight!"
Originally trained by Ronny Werner, Lady of Shamrock was purchased by her current connections after a smart Churchill maiden score at two. She made a terrific impression in her Santa Anita debut for Sadler in the 2011 Blue Norther, where she cleared away by 2 3/4 lengths. Lady of Shamrock next attempted dirt in the Santa Ysabel, but didn't seem to relish the surface when a fading third, and has stuck to the turf ever since.
Bred in Kentucky by Grovendale Sales, Lady of Shamrock RNA'd for $35,000 as a Keeneland November weanling. She sold for $80,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling, but brought only $11,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic the following May as a two-year-old in training. Produced by the Blushing John mare Blushing Issue, she's a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Smooth Jazz and the multiple stakes-winning She's Sensational. This is the family of Grade 1 winner Royal Chariot and 2010 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile upsetter Dakota Phone.