June 19, 2024

Stronghold edges Imagination in Santa Anita Derby

Stronghold wins the Santa Anita Derby (Photo by Horse Photos)

Stronghold is Kentucky Derby (G1)-bound following a gutsy win in $751,500 Santa Anita Derby (G1), splitting foes to strike the front in midstretch and withstanding the late surge of even-money favorite Imagination to prevail by a neck.

A convincing winner of the 1 1/16-mile Sunland Derby (G3) on Feb. 18, Stronghold left the starting gate as the 2.20-1 second choice among eight runners and completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.98. Antonio Fresu rides the Phil D’Amato-trained Ghostzapper colt for owner/breeder Eric and Sharon Waller.

“It is my first Grade 1 in America and it is all thanks to these great people that gave me the opportunity to ride this fantastic horse,” Fresu said. “He proved to be a good horse last time. I loved the way Phil D’Amato was training him the last couple of works. The horse was getting so much confidence and he was getting so much better than before. Today he proved to be a very good horse. Still, when he hit the front, he didn’t want to stay alone, he was waiting for some company.

“He got the job done and I want to dedicate this to my friend that passed away. I felt like he was there with me today. Stefano Cherchi was an amazing guy and I want to dedicate this to him.”

Stronghold stalked a couple of lengths back in fourth as Tapalo sped forward at the break and established opening splits in :22.72, :46.73, and 1:10.90. After advancing closer on the far turn, Stronghold forced his way between Imagination and E J Won the Cup in upper stretch to reach the fore.

Imagination battled back along the inside to make it close in the end, but Stronghold held gamely.

“I was hoping we’d get that track and trip,” D’Amato said. “It was a nice little speed battle back there, and he handled it well. He didn’t really get the easiest trip coming around the turn, but luckily, he was able to squeeze through a small hole there and prove that he can be the best when it comes down to the wire. We thought we needed a top three performance to get to the Kentucky Derby. We were definitely hoping to get on the winning end here.

“I think this was a great education for him, and a nice test that he’s going to need to win a race like the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been training him exactly the way he performed this afternoon, sitting him behind teams, having him come get them. That’s what you’re going to need to win big races like the Kentucky Derby, and he’s developing into that horse.”

A major qualifier in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, the Santa Anita Derby offered points on a 100-50-25-15-10 scale to the top five.

Imagination, who isn’t eligible for the Kentucky Derby due to trainer Bob Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs Inc., will likely head to the Preakness (G1) following the commendable performance. He wound up 3 1/4 lengths clear of E J Won the Cup, who was dismissed at 23-1 off a dominant win in the Turf Paradise Derby, and it was another 4 1/2 lengths back to Curlin’s Kaos in fourth.

Tapalo, Wynstock, Mc Vay, and Tessuto came next under the wire.

Stronghold is the only foal from the Grade 2-winning Jimmy Creed mare Spectator. The Kentucky-bred colt broke his maiden the second time out at Churchill Downs last fall, graduating over a one-turn mile, and Stronghold followed with runner-up finishes in the Bob Hope (G3) and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). He’s now earned $827,200 from a 6-3-3-0 record.