After a fine second in his stakes debut in the June 19 San Juan Capistrano (G3), Astronaut rocketed into the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) with a 24-1 upset of Saturday’s “Win and You’re In” Del Mar H. (G2). The John Shirreffs pupil benefitted from a well-timed move by Hall of Fame rider Victor Espinoza in the $302,500 nightcap on Pacific Classic Day. United, the 2.30-1 favorite, was not as fortunate in fourth.
Astronaut was settled in the latter half of the 11-horse field throughout the opening mile of the 1 3/8-mile test. Up front, San Juan Capistrano winner Acclimate was dictating terms in :25.24, :49.25, 1:14.28, and 1:39.92. Espinoza asked Astronaut to advance entering the final turn, and the lightly-raced four-year-old gradually circled his rivals. Acclimate was still clear in midstretch, but Astronaut overhauled him inside the final furlong.
Favorite backers were probably spending more time watching United trying to thread his way through the pack. Pocketed in fifth, the big galloper had to tap on the brakes entering the stretch behind a wall of horses. A seam rapidly opened for him, but United is not the push-button type. Leading rider Flavien Prat, who turned a graded treble earlier on the card, drove him through the gap, and the lumbering gelding finally rallied into contention. But it was too late.
Chilean import Master Piece, a 22.90-1 shot, closed fast and late to snatch second by a neck from the 10.30-1 Acclimate. Ironically, “acclimate” is just what Master Piece did in his switch to Michael McCarthy in Southern California, after disappointing of late for Chad Brown back East. Perhaps Del Mar reminds him more of home.
Acclimate salvaged third in the tight photo with United. The luckless Say the Word didn’t get to do much running after getting shuffled back to last on the turn, and stymied on the rail for the better part of the stretch. That puts into perspective his dead-heat fifth with defending champion Red King, who didn’t have the clearest passage either.
Arklow, a lackadaisical last for much of the way, found belated interest out wide in seventh. Crossfirehurricane was a nonthreatening eighth, followed by early stalkers Award Winner, Media Blitz, and Masteroffoxhounds.
John M.B. O’Connor’s Astronaut returned $50 to those who glimpsed potential in his latest effort.
Espinoza told Del Mar publicity that he adjusted tactics from the San Juan Capistrano, his first partnership with the colt:
“This didn’t surprise me. I thought in his last race he was a little too close. And, I think the race was a little too far for him (at about 1 3/4 miles), so we changed the way he ran a little bit today. I just let him break and get into rhythm. If he was happy, I was happy. He wasn’t up on the bridle and running so easily that when we got to the half-mile pole, I started to get a little excited.
“When I asked him, he finished strong for me, and it makes me happy to win this race for John (trainer Shirreffs). We have a very good relationship. He’s always been there for me and I’ve been there for him. He’s been there for me a little more lately.”
Shirreffs welcomed the result, especially following the Pacific Classic (G1), where his Express Train was a lackluster sixth as the 2.40-1 favorite.
“Puts a nice bandage on it, right,” the horseman said. “I’m just so happy for Astronaut and his connections; they are really great owners and it’s great to win for them. We wanted to run him long, but we weren’t sure how long, and when he ran so well going a mile and three-quarters, it seemed like this was possible.”
Astronaut has ascended rapidly since joining Shirreffs. The son of Quality Road broke his maiden at Santa Anita March 26 and placed a close second in a pair of May allowances, including a photo-finish loss to future Pacific Classic hero Tripoli. Astronaut outperformed his 8.40-1 odds in the San Juan and reached a new high here, propelling himself into the Breeders’ Cup Turf back at Del Mar Nov. 6.
Bred by Anastasie Astrid Christiansen-Croy in Kentucky, the dark bay inherits his stamina from his thoroughly German dam, Armanda. The Acatenango mare hails from the family of highweights Amorella, Andina, Arastou (dam of highweight Abitara), and Altano, a three-time winner of the Oleander-Rennen (G3) who also captured the 2013 Prix du Cadran (G1).