Trainer Bob Baffert had to go back to the drawing board after Drill dropped five straight, but the Hall of Famer evidently came up with the right game plan as Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman's colt returned to his best in Sunday's Grade 2, $147,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. Patiently handled by regular rider Martin Garcia, Drill outdueled American Act and left 1-2 favorite Creative Cause back in third.
Drill had met Creative Cause three times before, beating him at this seven-furlong distance but losing both of their meetings at 1 1/16 miles. After defeating Creative Cause in a wild rodeo of a stretch drive in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, Drill finished a solid second in the Grade 1 Norfolk. But since then, Drill's form had tailed off. He could do no better than 10th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where Creative Cause was third.
Following Drill's tiring seventh in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot, and a ninth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, Baffert decided to shorten him up to a sprint. The son of Lawyer Ron lined up as the 8-5 favorite in the 6 1/2-furlong San Pedro on January 22, but he again faded to fifth behind the promising Midnight Transfer. Baffert believed that perhaps Drill wasn't responding to his training regimen, and decided to ease up on the colt. The new strategy worked.
Drill was sent off as the 7-2 third choice in a scratch-reduced field of four in the San Vicente. American Act, the 3-1 second choice after a terrific maiden win, sprinted to the fore and rattled off splits of :22 3/5 and :45 4/5. Drill stalked in second, Let's Get Crackin raced in third, and Creative Cause, the heavy favorite in his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was reserved in a close-up last of the quartet.
American Act continued to bowl along entering the stretch, but Drill was moving well to challenge. In contrast, Creative Cause appeared to be going nowhere on the outside, and the odds-on choice never looked like the winner. Drill ranged up alongside and threatened to pull away from American Act, but the longtime leader was ultra-game in his stakes debut.
Digging in along the inside, American Act rallied, and nearly reclaimed the advantage in the final strides. Drill kept his nose in front, however, and finished seven furlongs on the fast track in 1:21 1/5. Creative Cause soldiered on and inched closer to be beaten a grand total of one length in third. Let's Get Crackin brought up the rear, another 1 1/4 lengths back.
The back-in-form winner returned $9.60 and $5. There was no show wagering after the withdrawals of Captain Obvious and Smoking G.
"I don't know what made the difference today," Garcia said. "I guess he just wanted to run. He's a really good horse so I don't know what happened in his last races, but he put everything together today. The finish was close, but I was confident I got the win."
"We actually thought he was going to run really well last time (in the San Pedro)," Baffert said. "Last time he broke a little slow and was behind, then he (Garcia) took him to the outside and then he flattened out.
"It worked out today with a shorter field. He got to the outside where he was clear. Martin did a great job of slowing the pace down. He fired his race and it's nice to see him back. We just got the jump on everybody so that really helped. Today he was more relaxed in the race and he got an easy trip -- that helped too."
Jack Carava, trainer of American Act, credited his sophomore for the near-miss.
"He fired back in there and that showed a lot of class, so we'll see what happens," Carava said.
"We'll have to sit down with the Siegels (owners Howard and Janet) and kind of analyze the race and see what they want to do," he added regarding a next start.
Creative Cause's connections weren't downcast by the upset.
"Everything set up perfect, but the other horse (Drill) was much the best today," jockey Joel Rosario said. "The last two times my horse ran, he was going a longer distance, but he shortened up to seven furlongs today, and I think that had something to do with it. He'll have a little time off after this, so the main thing is that he comes back good."
"We got what we wanted out of the race," trainer Mike Harrington said. "He's a route horse, not a seven-furlong horse. We hope he moves forward off of this. Did you see him gallop out? He'll definitely move forward."
Harrington is keeping options open with Creative Cause, since he wants to separate him from his other Derby hopeful, Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis runner-up Empire Way.
"I don't know (about his next race), because I've got the other horse, so I haven't figured that out yet," Harrington said. "It probably will be the San Felipe (Grade 2 at 1 1/16 miles on March 10) for one of them, I don't know which one."
Baffert isn't certain whether Drill will stick to one-turn races, or get another opportunity to stretch out.
"I don't know if maybe one turn (would be his next race). We'll let him tell us," the trainer summed up.
Drill improved his scorecard to 9-3-1-0, $339,710. The dark bay checked in eighth as the even-money favorite in his Del Mar debut last July, but made good next time out at the same track by a neck. That maiden win punched his ticket to the Del Mar Futurity.
Bred by Stonewall Farm Stallions in Kentucky, Drill failed to reach his reserve when bringing $170,000 as a Keeneland November weanling. He later sold for $300,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September.
Drill was produced by the winning Storm Cat mare Cat Dancer, who is a full sister to Grade 2 heroine Magic Storm, third in the Grade 1 Spinaway in 2001. Further back, this is the family of champion Little Current, the 1974 Preakness and Belmont hero; champion Chateaugay, who turned the Kentucky Derby/Belmont double in 1963, and his champion full sister Primonetta, Broodmare of the Year in 1978; and more recently, Grade 1 star and $2.6 million earner Hard Spun, runner-up in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic and now a hot young sire.