SAN DIEGO HANDICAP | PURSE: $200,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 2 | 1 1/16 MILES
Jay Em Ess Stable's Rail Trip returned to his winning ways on Saturday with a half-length victory in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. With jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. in the irons, the Ron Ellis-trained gelding ran 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack in 1:43 to return $11.20, $5.60 and $3.80 as the 9-2 fifth choice in the seven-horse field.
"No special instructions [from Ellis]. He said 'If you don't know him now, nobody does.' I've ridden him and worked him in the mornings," Valdivia said. "Ron said this race would tell us where [Rail Trip] was. Either he'll be back to his old self, or he's lost a step. I'd say he's back.
"He ran great. He was game all the way. It is so good to see him back to this level. He's a special horse and he's been through a lot. All that time back East. It's so good to see him back to this level."
"It was great. It was awesome. I think he really needed a win," Ellis agreed. "The thing I've noticed about him since he came back was he didn't have that swagger he did when he was winning. I think this race will help him get that back.
"I couldn't have mapped it out any better on paper. The plan was to get good position, he broke sharp, Jose made all the right moves and it was a perfect trip."
Valdivia settled Rail Trip just to the outside of 3-1 favorite John Scott through splits of :25, :49 4/5 and 1:14. Rail Trip drew even with his rival rounding the turn, and grabbed command once hitting the stretch. John Scott kept motoring, but Rail Trip had too much run for his fellow gelding, who just held the furiously rallying Kettle Corn by a half-length on the wire.
"I don't know what got into him today. He's usually a good gate horse. But he got kind of funny as soon as he went in there," Garrett Gomez said of Kettle Corn, who was fractious and reared up in the gate prior to the start. "He threw me off once; then he did it again. Considering what a pain in the you-know-what he was, he ran pretty good. And I know he can run better."
Take Control also put in a fast run down the lane and missed third by just a head. Mobilized, Prayer for Relief and Tres Borrachos completed the order under the wire.
Rail Trip rejoined Ellis' shedrow after spending his six-year-old season in the barn of Richard Dutrow Jr. on the East Coast. Prior to that, the bay son of Jump Start racked up wins in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup and Santana Mile Handicap in 2009, as well as the Mervyn Leroy Handicap and Californian Stakes, both Grade 2s, in 2010. He also placed in the 2010 Gold Cup and 2009 editions of the Mervyn Leroy, Californian and Grade 1 Pacific Classic, all while under the tutelage of Ellis.
Rail Trip just couldn't seem to transfer his winning West Coast form to Dutrow's barn, though, going winless in five starts. During that time he did run second in a pair of stakes at Belmont Park, but his foray in the Northeast came to an end when the gelding stumbled and lost his jockey at the start of the Sunny and Mild Stakes. Rail Trip exited that contest with an injured foot, and soon shipped back to California and Ellis' shedrow.
In two prior races this year, the seven-year-old veteran finished fourth in the Grade 3 Los Angeles Handicap before running second behind John Scott in an optional claimer on June 28. With this first win since the 2010 Californian, Rail Trip improved his mark to 9-6-1 from 20 starts and has banked $1,253,790 in lifetime earnings. He could now be headed for another try at the Pacific Classic on August 26.
"I said if he won this race we'd consider the Pacific Classic and we'll certainly give it some thought," Ellis said. "We'll see how he trains and how we go forward but it's going to be a consideration."
"Would I like him going a mile and a quarter [distance of the Pacific Classic]? I'd love him," Valdivia smiled.
With the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita this year, and the San Diego win worth an automatic starting berth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, even bigger things could be on Rail Trip's horizon.
"That's a big possibility," Ellis stated. "I've always thought he would be an excellent miler. We worked real hard stretching him out to a mile and a quarter, but I always thought he would be a real good middle-distance horse.
"We'll see. Anything's an option now, but I like our chances of going in the right direction."
Bred in Kentucky by Donarra Thoroughbreds LLC, Rail Trip brought $200,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling in 2006. He is the first registered foal from the winning Carson City mare Sweet Trip, who is herself out of stakes victress Stellar Affair. Although his immediate family is short on graded laurels, Rail Trip descends from the same family as English champion sprinter Flirting Around, who scored his biggest career victory in the 1975 Group 1 King's Stand Stakes.