by J. Keeler Johnson
The versatile Catalina Cruiser had to work harder than expected to prevail in the $200,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes (G2) on Saturday at Del Mar, but when push came to shove, the heavy favorite refused to be beaten and got the job done at odds of 1-2.
Coming off a victory in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar, Catalina Cruiser was cutting back to seven furlongs for the Pat O’Brien and handled the challenge with aplomb. Under a patient ride from Flavien Prat, the five-year-old son of Union Rags settled into a four-wide tracking position early on as Chief Cicatriz, Jalen Journey, and American Anthem dueled for the lead through fractions of :22.13 and :44.52.
On the far turn, Catalina Cruiser ranged up alongside the leaders, but his move was matched and surpassed by the rallying Giant Expectations, who unleashed an eye-catching burst of acceleration to loop around the field five-wide and seize a brief lead.
However, Catalina Cruiser had something left in the tank. Battling back with the tenacity of a top-class racehorse, Catalina Cruiser stubbornly regained lost ground through the final furlong and thrust his head to the front in the shadow of the wire.
“We were wide (through the first four furlongs), but I was comfortable. He was going easy,” Prat said. “At the quarter pole, Giant Expectations made a good move to get by me. He was in front but my horse fought back. He accelerated and ran well to win.”
Catalina Cruiser stopped the clock in 1:22 flat, a solid time over the slow-playing Del Mar main track. American Anthem held on for third place, 4 3/4 lengths behind the top pair, while Jalen Journey, Seven Trumpets, and Chief Cicatriz rounded out the order of finish.
“That’s a fast race, I could tell, on this track,” said winning trainer John Sadler. “He was wide all the way, was involved in the running all the way, so I was really pleased. He’s a big horse and he’s got a big heart; I really thought that (when headed in the stretch) he would fight.”
Owned by Hronis Racing, Catalina Cruiser successfully completed the San Diego Handicap/Pat O’Brien double for the second year in a row. He’s now undefeated in four starts at Del Mar and boasts a 7-for-8 record overall, with his lone defeat coming in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Churchill Downs, where he unexpectedly finished sixth as the 9-10 favorite.
With five Grade 2 triumphs under his belt, the next step for Catalina Cruiser is to secure a signature Grade 1 victory. A race like the September 28 Awesome Again Stakes (G1) going 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita could be a logical target, serving as a steppingstone toward another tilt in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile or perhaps a step up in distance for the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).