DEL MAR HANDICAP | PURSE: $200,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 2 | 1 3/8 MILES (TURF)
Gary and Mary West's Casino Host got first run on 6-5 favorite Dhaamer in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Del Mar Handicap, and that prompt move by jockey Joe Talamo made the crucial difference. Pouncing to the front in the stretch, the 7-2 chance withstood Dhaamer's furious late rally by a neck and returned $9.60, $4.20 and $3.40.
Casino Host, whose previous stakes victory came in the Grade 2 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds on April 1, had only recently shifted tack to the Southern California circuit. Formerly based with Chad Brown, the Dynaformer colt was transferred to Ron Ellis and made his debut for the barn in the Grade 1 Eddie Read on July 21. Connections described it at the time as a stepping stone to the Del Mar 'Cap, and his strongly-closing third was a hint that better was in store here.
"Gary West lives down here in Rancho Santa Fe," Ellis said, "and they sent him out and mapped out these two races at Del Mar. I'm very glad it worked out."
Enjoying a ground-saving trip much of the way, Casino Host was settled about midpack in fifth as Worth Repeating got away with slow fractions of :25 1/5, :50, 1:15 3/5 and 1:39 3/5 on the firm turf. Fire with Fire tracked in second, but Interaction and Dhaamer raced in the latter part of the field.
Talamo asked Casino Host to work his way into a better spot on the final turn, and he responded. Angling out for a clear path and striding well within himself, he was poised to strike in earnest. Dhaamer, on the other hand, was still biding his time, and had to come around rivals in the stretch.
By that point, Casino Host was already bearing down on Fire with Fire, who had taken over from the weakening Worth Repeating. Casino Host mowed him down in turn and braced for the inevitable challenge of Dhaamer. The favorite was now rallying mightily, but Casino Host was not wilting. Although Dhaamer was getting to him late, Casino Host was always finding enough to complete 1 3/8 miles in 2:14 3/5.
"Ron [Ellis] told me to ride him with confidence and to try to save all the ground I could," Talamo said. "I had a perfect trip. It all unfolded just like I hoped. We got out right and he was running. Good thing, too. Garrett's horse [Garrett Gomez on Dhaamer] was really running at the end. We had to work hard to hold him off."
"He's just riding very well right now," Ellis said of Talamo. "He's just a damn good rider at a very young age.
"We planned on laying a little closer today," the trainer added. "I took him back too far purposely last time [in the Eddie Read] because he had been shipping all around and wasn't at full strength. We got him a race over the course and it set him up real well.
"It got a little close there at the end, but he was game and battled when they came to him," Ellis summed up. "It's nice to know he can go that far going on to the Breeders' Cup [Turf at 1 1/2 miles]."
Garrett Gomez was ruing his trip aboard Dhaamer.
"I just was stuck all the way around," Gomez said. "I tried to move up, and they all moved up, and I'm five wide. I try to take back and save ground, and they slow it down. I just couldn't get a spot with him. Lost way too much ground. He was running at the end, but we ran out of race."
Fire with Fire checked in another length back in third. Worth Repeating held fourth, followed by Interaction, Hog's Hollow, Dynamic Host and Brushburn. Temple's Door was scratched.
Interaction, who had beaten Casino Host last time as the Eddie Read runner-up, ran well below that form Saturday.
"I just don't know [what happened]," jockey Brice Blanc said of Interaction. "I don't know what to say. I think he's a better horse than all of them, but he just didn't show it today."
Casino Host's second stakes coup advanced his record to 15-4-3-2, $575,175. A solid third in last summer's Grade 2 Virginia Derby, the dark bay ran well without managing to hit the board in three subsequent Grade 1 attempts -- a fifth in the Secretariat Stakes and a pair of sixths in the Jamaica and Hollywood Derby. He made a winning four-year-old debut in a February 4 allowance at Gulfstream Park, and next time out, broke through in the Muniz. Casino Host was a rallying fourth in the Grade 2 Dixie on May 19, but couldn't recover from a rough start when seventh in the June 16 Colonial Turf Cup, his final outing for Brown.
Ellis is plotting a course to the November 3 Breeders' Cup Turf.
"We'll probably have one more race in between," the trainer said, with the Grade 2 John Henry [formerly the Clement L. Hirsch] Turf Championship at Santa Anita September 30 the logical spot.
Bred by Colts Neck Stables in Kentucky, Casino Host was sold for $290,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. His dam, the stakes-placed Seeking the Gold mare Ensenada, is a full sister to Grade 2 heroine Sahara Gold, who has produced Grade 3 victor Sahara Heat as well as this season's Grade 2 Sands Point winner Better Lucky.
Casino Host's second dam is Desert Stormer, who upset males in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint. This is also the family of unbeaten Group 1 queen White Moonstone and Canadian champion Sound Reason.