TRAINER Bill Mott’s decision to give Lea one more opportunity against top-calibre competition on dirt paid big dividends Sunday, when the latest rising star in the handicap division set a track record en route to a 1 1/2-length victory over Eclipse Award winner Will Take Charge in Gulfstream Park’s Donn Handicap (gr.I) over 1 1/8 miles.
Lea was transferred to Mott’s barn by owners Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm last fall, and his original inclination was to point the son of First Samurai to one of the early turf races on the 2014 Gulfstream stakes schedule.
But after taking a closer look at Lea’s main track form, Mott decided to give him one more shot on dirt early in the year to help formulate plans for the remainder of the season. Lea responded by launching his campaign with an impressive 3 1/4-length win going a mile under Luis Saez in the Hal’s Hope (gr.III). The performance was convincing enough to earn Lea a spot in the Donn.
With jockey Joel Rosario substituting for Saez, who kept his regular seat aboard Will Take Charge on Sunday, Lea (6/1) stalked the early leader, Uncaptured, through the opening six furlongs. Lea edged to the lead nearing the three-eighths pole, opened a commanding advantage in upper stretch, then remained clear to the wire. He covered the trip in 1:46.86. It eclipsed the old standard of 1:47.49 established by Quality Road in 2010.
Will Take Charge, making his first start since capturing the Clark Handicap (gr.I) in his three-year-old finale and his first since being named an Eclipse Award winner last month, ran a big race in defeat. He settled in mid-pack during the early stages, advanced wide leaving the backstretch, continued on willingly down the lane, but could not reach the winner while easily second-best. Viramundo, a 45/1 outsider, finished 9 1/4 lengths back in third.
“The horse that was on the lead wasn’t the one I was counting on being on the lead,” Mott said. “I thought it could be Romansh or River Seven, but it turned out the same type of trip we thought we might be able to get. He’s been the distance and won at the distance on the turf, but it’s always a different challenge when you move them to the dirt. I felt he was capable, but, of course, the competition was stiff. We were in against the champion, and we were good enough to beat him today.”
Mott said it was too early to consider when or where Lea might run next. “I wouldn’t do anything with him for the next month or so,” Mott said. “It’s a long year, and the big races are at the end of the year, and there’s a lot of good racing in between. I think right now, I’d like to point him to the Whitney at Saratoga, and we’ll see what happens.”
D Wayne Lukas, who trains Will Take Charge, saluted the winner after the race. “They had to set a new track record to beat us, so that’s all you need to know,” Lukas said. “We got blocked for a bit and couldn’t get out, so we couldn’t move as quickly as we wanted to. We also didn’t have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage.”