In a changing of the guard, up-and-coming four-year-olds swept both of Santa Anita’s graded turf stakes on Saturday. Hit the Road pretty much told his rivals just that when bolting up in the $100,500 Thunder Road S. (G3), and repatriated blueblood Masteroffoxhounds continued his ascent in the $200,000 San Marcos S. (G2).
After outclassing the field in Del Mar’s Oceanside last July, Hit the Road appeared bound for the top of the Southern California sophomore turf scene. Unfortunately, the Dan Blacker trainee was sidelined for the rest of the season by bone bruising. But Hit the Road looks eager to make up for lost time, returning with a vengeance in this first start against his elders.
The son of More Than Ready was given an ideal trip by jockey Umberto Rispoli. As Sombeyay was pressed by 2.20-1 favorite Bob and Jackie through fractions of :23.60, :46.80, and 1:10.18, Hit the Road was perched in a watching third. The 3-1 chance angled out into the stretch and engulfed them by a commanding 3 3/4 lengths. By reeling off a final eighth in :11.48, Hit the Road clocked the mile in 1:33.35.
Runner-up Bob and Jackie had a half-length to spare from the rallying Border Town, who nipped Sombeyay for third. Next came Hembree and the ever-trailing Campaign, while Award Winner and Restrainedvengence were withdrawn.
“We always believed in him and had faith in him,” Rispoli said. “It was a shame he missed a couple of stakes, he looks like he’s headed in the right direction.
“I was on top of the race and by the five-furlong marker he was already pulling hard and I could understand he was fresh. He was so good today. At the top of the stretch he had good acceleration and covered good ground. It was a good comeback, so now it’s up to Dan what he is going to do. He might clash with Smooth Like Strait which is going to be a tough choice between two good horses. It’s definitely better to have two good horses than to not (have any).
“He met my expectations today. When I worked him, I could feel the horse (had) come back in a huge way.”
Rispoli didn’t give that glowing report, however, to Blacker at the time.
“(Umberto) worked the horse in :59 a week ago,” the trainer said, “and he called me after the work and said, ‘He just worked OK.’ I was kind of worried he didn’t think he looked too good. Then after the race he told me, ‘I didn’t want to get you too excited.’
“For me the horse is a champion in my eyes and I’m just so thankful to the group of owners (D K Racing, Radley Equine,Taste of Victory Stables, Rick Gold and Dave Odmark).
“Like I said before the race, he was born a great horse. I’m just lucky to have him in my barn.”
Hit the Road’s third career stakes victory improved his record to 8-5-0-0, $254,751. The winner of the 2019 Zuma Beach as a two-year-old, he was a close seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), but demoted to last of 14 for interference. Hit the Road concluded his freshman campaign with a rallying fourth in the Cecil B. DeMille (G3). By capturing both outings as a three-year-old, he was beginning to reach a new level, and the Thunder Road made it three straight.
Bred by Fred W. Hertrich III in Kentucky, Hit the Road RNA’d for $200,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. His dam, the U S Ranger mare Highway Mary, is a half-sister to Aidan O’Brien’s 2013 Dewhurst (G1) and Coventry (G2) hero War Command as well as to Group 3 victor Naval Officer. They are out of Wandering Star, winner of the 1996 E.P. Taylor (G2), from the further family of Silver Hawk.
Highway Mary sports a fascinating pedigree pattern. U S Ranger’s dam and Wandering Star are both by Red Ransom out of mares by His Majesty.
If not for COVID-19, Masteroffoxhounds would have been in the Far East by now. But instead, the former Ballydoyle resident found his way to Rockingham Ranch and trainer Richard Baltas, to the benefit of the local turf ranks.
By War Front, Masteroffoxhounds is out of the Coolmore-affiliated Outstanding, a full sister to the firm’s 2013 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) and Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) winner Magician. The daughter of Galileo was herself an Irish stakes scorer, and third to Lady Eli in the 2015 Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1). Another full sister, Apple Betty, earned her signature win stateside in the 2017 Dowager (G3), so the pedigree is filled with auspicious signs for Masteroffoxhounds in his new home.
It was a circuitous route, though. Winless in two juvenile tries for O’Brien, Masteroffoxhounds was entered in the 2019 Tattersalls Autumn Horses of Racing Age Sale, but withdrawn. He was acquired privately by Zhang Yuesheng, the impresario behind Yulong Investments, and entered quarantine prior to his scheduled export to China.
Then when COVID-19 struck, plans changed. Masteroffoxhounds stayed in Ireland last spring but transferred to Jessica Harrington. He made a winning debut for his connections on June 8 at Naas. Although beaten in his three remaining starts there, Masteroffoxhounds signed off with a second at Leopardstown July 31 to Galileo Chrome, the eventual St Leger (G1) winner.
Resurfacing with Baltas, Masteroffoxhounds was a work in progress when seventh in a Nov. 7 Del Mar allowance over a mile. Added ground in a similar contest at 1 3/8 miles Nov. 28 helped as he broke through with a 4 1/4-length conquest, and took another step forward in the San Marcos.
“I changed the bridle and I changed the exercise rider,” Baltas said of the colt’s improvement. “I just wanted him to be more aggressive. He tended to pick up the bit more in the mornings. He’s trained forwardly and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
Masteroffoxhounds has responded to those tweaks. Despite a slight stumble at the start, the 17-10 second choice was into the game early. That made it easy for jockey Joel Rosario to set up shop tracking 13-10 favorite Acclimate through tepid splits of :24.41, :49.37, 1:14.19, and 1:38.49 on the firm turf. Masteroffoxhounds lengthened beautifully down the lane, quickening 1 1/4 lengths past the dogged veteran Acclimate to negotiate 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.39.
Acclimate was best of the rest by 1 1/2 lengths. Starting Over got up for third, followed by Salvator Mundi, Cleopatra’s Strike, and Baltas’ other runner, Oscar Dominguez.
“I was worried it was going to be a slow pace,” Baltas observed, “and it was a slow pace at 14 and change. He was impressive last time and trained up well going into this race. It was a big jump from one event to a stake, but he’s got a lot of credibility.
“I told Joel to sit second, and he did it perfectly. He let the horse in front relax, but the other horse (seven-year-old Acclimate) is getting old. Oscar is getting old, and the other horse is getting old; they’re seven or eight years old.”
Rosario found Masteroffoxhounds a straightforward ride.
“He was moving pretty well for me,” Rosario said. “The whole time I was tracking the horse in front with a nice stride. I had a lot of confidence in my horse. I was keeping him focused a bit in the last part, but (he) was much the best in the end.”
Masteroffoxhounds has plenty of upside with a mark of 9-3-1-1, $172,940. Aside from his “uncle” Magician, other celebrities from this productive family include Irish highweight juvenile fillies Listen and Sequoyah, dam of dual classic winner and 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) runner-up Henrythenavigator.