Gem Stable's J P'S GUSTO (Successful Appeal) had never been on the lead in his three starts prior to Sunday's $150,000 Best Pal S. (G2). But having broken sharply from the rail, and with the scratch of the speedy River's Chapel (Chapel Royal), the savvy Patrick Valenzuela knew what to do with his pick-up mount. Taking over from the sidelined Joe Talamo, Valenzuela let the David Hofmans pupil take the initiative, brushed aside a gauntlet of challengers, and held on by a half-length from 3-2 favorite Sway Away (Afleet Alex).
"Being here today and doing this almost makes me want to cry," said Valenzuela, whose at times glittering career has been interrupted by substance abuse in the past. Having ridden for the past few years in Louisiana, he just regained a California license and resumed riding at Del Mar last Wednesday.
"It is by the grace of the Lord that I am doing it," Valenzuela added. "I am so thankful.
"I won the Best Pal (then the Balboa S. [G3]) on Best Pal 20 years ago (1990) and here I am winning this race again. I hope it is a good sign."
J P's Gusto, the winner of the July 5 Hollywood Juvenile Championship S. (G3) and May 31 Willard L. Proctor Memorial S. in his past two at Hollywood Park, was allowed to go off as the nearly 5-2 third choice at Del Mar. With this third straight stakes coup, he has now laid claim to pro-tempore divisional leadership among the West Coast two-year-olds.
In the opening strides, J P's Gusto was pressed by Hollywood Juvenile Championship runner-up Western Mood (West Acre). Comma to the Top (Bwana Charlie), however, soon moved through to prompt the pace through an opening quarter in :22 2/5. Then Minutesandtouches (Rockport Harbor) split rivals to take his shot at J P's Gusto, who reached the half in :46 1/5.
J P's Gusto shrugged off his nearest pursuers turning for home and was still firmly in command in midstretch, but a new threat emerged from Sway Away. Last of the quintet early, the impressive Pleasanton maiden winner made good headway down the lane and closed the gap. J P's Gusto responded and fought him off by a half-length. After reeling off 6 1/2 furlongs on the Polytrack in 1:16 3/5, the winner rewarded his backers with $6.80, $3.20 and $2.40.
"He broke so sharp," Valenzuela said. "I didn't want the lead, but I inherited it. He's been training so well. I galloped him yesterday just to familiarize myself with him. He felt awful good today and this felt awful good (to me). This is a really nice colt and he's got a great future in front of him."
"Patrick said they were going real slow and he had lots of horse," Hofmans said. "I didn't think we'd be on the lead. Patrick said that when he felt the others coming to him, he kicked into another gear."
Sway Away gave back $3 and $2.10 for finishing 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Western Mood, who paid $2.20 to show as the 8-5 second choice. The $1 exotics were worth $10.70 (exacta), $14.70 (trifecta) and $30.60 (1-6-5-2 superfecta) with the 10-1 Comma to the Top another 2 3/4 lengths astern in fourth. Minutesandtouches trailed. There was one other scratch besides River's Chapel -- the filly Wickedly Perfect (Congrats), who won Friday's Sorrento S. (G3).
J P's Gusto has now bankrolled $187,360 from his 4-3-0-0 line. The bay ridgling had a rough introduction to the sport on May 9 at Hollywood, getting away slowly in a 4 1/2-furlong dash and enduring a wide trip before closing strongly for sixth. Hofmans pitched him right into stakes company in the Willard Proctor, and with a more straightforward passage, he surged to a 4 1/2-length triumph. The margin was much closer in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, where J P's Gusto came again to score by a neck.
Bred by WinStar Farm in Kentucky, J P's Gusto was sold for $52,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. He is a full brother to Magic Appeal, the third-place finisher in last year's Adirondack S. (G2), and a half-brother to the stakes-placed Kid Majic (Lemon Drop Kid). They are all out of the multiple stakes winner Call Her Magic (Caller I. D.), who is a half-sister to the winning Pacific Spell (Langfuhr), the dam of 2008 champion three-year-old filly Proud Spell (Proud Citizen). This is also the family of Grade 1 winner Imaginary Lady (Marfa).
The Del Mar Futurity (G1) on closing day, September 8, is on J P's Gusto's calendar.
"We're right on schedule," Hofmans said. "I don't think he'll have any trouble getting seven furlongs in the Futurity.
"We'll go to the Futurity unless this horse kills me first. He's a very tough horse to handle all the time."