Facing graded stakes winners Maxfield, Express Train, Independence Hall, and others, Idol didn't have the pre-race qualifications to match those rivals in the $401,500 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) March 6 at Santa Anita Park.
But trainer Richard Baltas felt he would benefit from three factors—picking up jockey Joel Rosario, receiving a weight break, and running a longer, 1 1/4-mile distance.
As Baltas hoped, those factors turned the tide. Idol closed furiously down the center of the racetrack to catch Express Train by a half-length in the Santa Anita Handicap, with the previously unbeaten Maxfield another 1 1/2 lengths back in third.
The stakes victory was the first for Idol. The 4-year-old son of Curlin owned by Calvin Nguyen had been second in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) behind Kiss Today Goodbye and third behind Express Train and Tizamagician in the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) earlier this winter at Santa Anita.
He raced against all three of those rivals Saturday, though this time, over a classic distance in the Santa Anita Handicap, they could not repeal his late charge. The winner carried 119 pounds, four less than Express Train and five less than Maxfield.
Seventh in the field of eight early, as King Guillermo set the pace with splits of :22.82, :47.12 and 1:12.26, Rosario called Idol into action on the second turn. Though he didn't pick up the leaders immediately, he made progress, advancing into sixth after a stalking Express Train had swooped to the lead with a mile in 1:37.13.
Following Maxfield's midpack rally, Rosario fanned his mount into the center of the track for the stretch run, and it was over the straightaway that his mount kicked into gear, picking off those in front of him and nailing Express Train in the final strides. The winner was timed in 2:02.46 for the distance, one of the race's slowest runnings over the past 45 years.
"My horse loves this distance," Rosario said of Idol. "I just wanted to keep him away from the rail and he handled it easily. He responded when it came time to run and he had some kick. I appreciate the opportunity Richard Baltas gave me for this ride. I had never been on him. I watched all his races and I could see he tries hard every time. What a strong finish today. He ran really big."
Trainer Richard Baltas said winning the historic race, which had its 84th running Saturday, was meaningful for him.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "I mean, I've been coming here since I was 13 years old—before I ever got to be a horse trainer. I saw all the greats run here in 'Big Cap' and you know, you never think you're gonna be here. But keep working hard. And you know, God blesses you."
The Santa Anita Handicap was a reward for a long association between the trainer and Nguyen, who co-owned Freedom Crest, a runner Baltas trained for a portion of the gelding's career, beginning in 1999. Freedom Crest won the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (G2) at Santa Anita for them and co-owner Joey Tran in 2001.
"It's just been an incredible ride. You know, I have just been very fortunate," Nguyen said in a winner's circle interview. "Ritchie's put together a great team and I'm just very fortunate to be part of it. He's just a great guy. I've known him for so long."
C R K's Express Train picked up his second grade 1 placing Saturday, having also been the runner-up to Charlatan in the Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1) in his start before his San Pasqual victory. He turned in his usual honest performance under Juan Hernandez but tired over the final furlong.
Godolphin's Maxfield, winner of the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in 2019, one of his four stakes victories, lost for the first time in six starts. Racing beyond 1 1/16 miles for the first time, he lacked his usual acceleration but came with a modest wide rally under Florent Geroux.
Bred in Kentucky by My Meadowview, Idol is the first stakes winner out of the stakes-winning A. P. Indy mare Marion Ravenwood, who captured the Capades Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in 2011. Three of her six foals have started, two of which are now winners. She also has an unnamed 2-year-old full sister to Idol and a yearling colt by Violence .
Idol ($12.80) was a $375,000 purchase at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by John Holmes from Denali Stud's consignment. He has earned $416,464, compiling a 3-2-1 record from six starts. His first two victories came last fall at Churchill Downs.