One of the stories of the 2020 sprint division was the success of C Z Rocket after the claim by Tom Kagele and trainer Peter Miller. Kagele and Miller might be writing a similar script on the turf in 2021. Their Hembree won Friday’s $201,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes (G2) in his Santa Anita debut first off the claim, under a last-to-first, rail-skimming ride by Joel Rosario.
Previously with Mike Maker, Hembree had a more extensive stakes resume than C Z Rocket. The veteran captured the 2018 Nearctic (G2) at Woodbine, finished 10th next out in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), and then plied his trade at around a mile. After setting a Gulfstream Park course record in the 7 1/2-furlong El Prado in 2019, Hembree endured a losing skid, but came close in that summer’s Poker (G3) and Forbidden Apple (G3). He continued to pay his way in 2020, adding to his black-type collection with thirds in the Aug. 2 Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile at Ellis Park, Sept. 9 Tapit at Kentucky Downs, and the Oct. 3 Dinner Party (formerly the Dixie) (G2) at Pimlico.
Hembree was dropped in for a $62,500 tag at Churchill Downs Nov. 19, and Kagele and Miller claimed him out of that win going a mile on dirt. Reverting to turf but shortening up to 6 1/2 furlongs for the Joe Hernandez, the 5-1 chance celebrated his seventh birthday with a major score.
Stablemate and defending champion Texas Wedge, whose 2020 edition came at 5 1/2 furlongs, flashed speed on the rail before the 18-1 P R Radio Star grabbed a slim lead. Pressed by 2.40-1 favorite Wildman Jack, P R Radio Star reeled off fractions of :21.56 and :44.13 on the firm course. Wildman Jack was still grappling with the longshot when Blitzkrieg, his Doug O’Neill stablemate, loomed to challenge at the top of the stretch.
True Valour produced a more telling bid out wide, only to have Hembree save every inch of ground and dart through along the fence. Driving three-quarters of a length clear, Hembree clocked 1:13.80.
The top two had the finish all to themselves. Blitzkrieg checked in another 3 1/4 lengths back in third, a half-length up on Texas Wedge who had eased back, angled outside, and made some headway in fourth. Next came Chaos Theory, Wildman Jack, and P R Radio Star.
Four were scratched – Mesut, Encoder, and Oiseau de Guerre (all three entered in Saturday’s 9TH race) along with Ohio.
“Pete told me to let him be early and try to make one run with him,” Rosario told Santa Anita publicity. “He broke well and I thought we were in a good spot, not too far off the lead. He made a nice move around the turn and when that other horse came to him, he tried very hard.”
Miller gave the jockey a rave review.
“Brilliant – it really was just a fantastic ride by Joel, that’s why he’s one of the world’s best,” Miller said.
“He’s a very fast horse. He runs fast figures and fast Beyers. The question to me was whether the 6 1/2 was too short for him, but he answered the question the right way.”
Hembree has now bankrolled $927,371, much of it for Three Diamonds Farm, from a record of 40-8-10-8. Runner-up in the 2016 Sunday Silence when trained by Joe Sharp for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the dark bay made a couple of starts for Maker in the summer of 2017. He was claimed by Rudy Rodriguez and later by Raymond Handal, but Maker claimed him back in April 2018 and didn’t risk him again until last time out.
Bred by Derby Lane Farm in Kentucky, Hembree sold for $40,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The son of Proud Citizen and the Langfuhr mare Knockatrina hails from the family of Grade 1 queen Buzz My Bell, dam of 1996 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Grindstone.