March 4, 2024

Country Grammer fights back to deny Royal Ship in Hollywood Gold Cup

Country Grammer (inside) turns back Royal Ship in the 2021 Hollywood Gold Cup (Photo by Benoit Photo)

When Royal Ship collared Country Grammer in the stretch of Monday’s $301,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), the duo appeared bound to reprise their hard-fought exacta from the April 17 Californian (G2). But Country Grammer proved a more redoubtable foe in the rematch. Moving forward second off the layoff, and relishing the added distance in the 1 1/4-mile feature, the Bob Baffert trainee came again to beat Royal Ship to the Santa Anita wire.

Bettors forecast that Country Grammer would turn the tables, sending him off as the 9-5 favorite. The son of Tonalist was making just his second start for Baffert. Originally with Chad Brown, Country Grammer began to fulfill his early promise when capturing last summer’s pandemic-delayed Peter Pan (G3) at Saratoga. He was sidelined after a fifth in the Travers (G1).

Country Grammer might have stayed on the East Coast if not for the passing of owner Paul Pompa Jr. Offered as part of his estate’s dispersal at Keeneland January, the four-year-old was sold for $110,000 to WinStar Farm. That was a lot less than his $450,000 price as a two-year-old in training at OBS April, and WinStar’s discount purchase turned out to be shrewd.

“Elliot Walden and WinStar bought him to bring to California because they figured 1 1/4 miles was his distance,” Baffert said.

After setting the pace in his Californian comeback and going down grudgingly by a neck, Country Grammer got to play stalk and pounce in the Gold Cup. The bay broke sharply along with Royal Ship, but his new rider Flavien Prat was content to let another pick up the pacesetting job.

As Brown Storm strode on through fractions of :22.92, :47.16, and 1:12.09, Country Grammer tracked in second. Royal Ship advanced into third approaching the far turn, and moved in tandem as Country Grammer took over from Brown Storm.

The match race was on for the final quarter-mile. Although Country Grammer was a head up at the mile mark in 1:37.18, Royal Ship was traveling a bit more readily. The Californian winner asserted upon straightening, edging ahead by as much as a half-length, but could not quite put away his foe.

The longer Country Grammer clung to Royal Ship’s flank, the more determined he became until regaining the advantage. Royal Ship tried to counter-attack in the final strides, but Country Grammer still had his head in front in 2:02.23.

“He ran super well,” Prat recapped. “He broke well and I was able to get myself in a good spot. I was a little bit worried when I saw Mike Smith (aboard Royal Ship) on the outside of me. I wish I could have kept him inside.

“Mike took the lead on me, but my horse was really game to come back.”

Another 4 1/4 lengths adrift came Express Train, who cost himself vital early positioning by veering out at the start. The 2.30-1 second choice chugged on to overtake Rushie by a half-length for third. Heywoods Beach, Two Thirty Five, and Brown Storm concluded the order of finish.

Country Grammer has now bankrolled $377,320 from his 8-3-1-1 line. The colt stamped himself as a promising type when breaking his maiden over 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct as a juvenile. Fifth in the 2020 Fountain of Youth (G2), he reverted to allowance company last summer and placed third to Tap It to Win and Mystic Guide at Belmont Park. Country Grammer turned the tables on Mystic Guide back around two turns in the Peter Pan at the Spa, getting the jump and leaving him behind in a belated third.

While Country Grammer was on the shelf, Mystic Guide had gone from strength to strength, a progression crowned in the March 27 Dubai World Cup (G1). Now Country Grammer is making up for lost time, and perhaps another clash with his old foe in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

“His form on the dirt was really good last year,” Baffert said. “It looked like he was beat today, but he kicked it in. I’m so happy for WinStar Group.

“It’s exciting. He ran a big race last time and just got beat. He was really ready to go today and I think the distance was the key. He got it done with a lot of class and determination.”

Bred by Scott and Debbie Pierce in Kentucky, Country Grammer initially brought $60,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. His dam, the Forestry mare Arabian Song, is also responsible for recent Miss Preakness (G3) third Joyful Cadence. Further back, this is the Juddmonte family of Sightseek, Tates Creek, and Etoile Montante. His other maternal relatives include Grade 2 winners Bonny South, Starformer (dam of current performers Flavius and Oyster Box), and Obligatory, who just landed the Eight Belles (G2).