There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and with the temperature in the high 70s at post time, it might as well have been August at the beach, not early November.
The Del Mar racetrack couldn’t hope for better conditions on the opening day of its fifth fall meeting, nor could it have dreamed up a story with more sunshine in the first stakes event.
When 4-year-old filly Excellent Sunset crossed the wire first in Friday’s $75,000 Kathryn Crosby Stakes, trainer Anna Meah, a former exercise rider who this year struck out on her own, appeared to have won her first race of any kind, with a horse partly owned by former basketball coach Rick Pitino.
But an inquiry went up on the board after it appeared Excellent Sunset, with Mario Gutierrez aboard, drifted into the path of Escape Clause in the stretch, causing her and jockey Ruben Fuentes to momentarily pull up in a runner-up finish by a quarter-length.
After a few tense minutes, the stewards disqualified Excellent Sunset and placed her second — giving 4-year-old Escape Clause ($39.40) her ninth straight victory and first triumph on turf.
And that is a tremendous tale itself.
Owner and trainer Don Schnell, a 66-year-old who has spent nearly all of his 40-year training career shipping horses around Canada, decided to make only his second entry ever at Del Mar with Escape Clause.
She had dominated lesser competition in winning eight consecutive races on four different tracks, from Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Century Downs in Calgary, Alberta.
So much had her legend grown that Schnell said not a single other horse was entered in an August race at Assiniboia with a $20,000 purse, so he put another horse from his stable to run against Escape Clause. She won, of course.
Schnell winters with a small string of horses at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, and he thought he’d give Escape Clause a shot at tougher competition in the Kathryn Crosby. Most of Del Mar’s accomplished trainers had entries in the 11-horse field.
“I thought with the quality of the horses being so much better than what she’s run against, if we ran third or fourth I’d be happy,” Schnell said. “But she’s game. That filly tries.”
The trainer wasn’t happy with the trip in the one-mile race, watching Escape Clause get forced inside more than she likes. Still, she began to make her charge in the middle of the home stretch and looked to be gaining ground when Excellent Sunset drifted over. Fuentes had to stand up in the irons to pull her up.
Of the inquiry, Schnell said, “That’s not always the way you want to win, but we’ll take it. Ruben felt like she would have won if he doesn’t get cut off.”
In the winner’s circle, Schnell just kept delivering intriguing aspects about the horse and her victory.
As of Thursday morning, Escape Clause was still in Phoenix and Schnell wasn’t sure he’d be able to run her because there were issues with his workman’s comp insurance in California. That issue got settled at around 2 p.m., they put the filly in a van headed west, and she got to her barn around 8 p.m.
Schnell shrugged that off.
“I do it a lot,” he said. “Probably of the last 10 times I’ve shipped, I’ve won eight. We seem to do better when we ship. Going the night before seems to work.”
Schnell also let on that Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith inquired about riding Escape Clause in the Crosby, but decided to go on Birdie Gold, who finished 10th. Schnell was perfectly happy to have Fuentes, whom he’d helped get his riding start in Arizona.
In another jockey connection, Schnell said he is good friends with Scott Stevens, the brother of Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens. In a phone call, Gary Stevens assured Schnell he had a quality horse that could excel in a bigger test.
“Gary said, ‘I don’t care where she’s winning, in Timbuktu or some odd place. She’s won eight in a row. When they do that, they have talent and she’s got a shot,’ ” Schnell said.
Purchased for $3,200 at a sale in Manitoba, Escape Clause now has 18 wins in 25 starts. The $48,660 she got for first place Friday represents 14 percent of her career earnings of $345,500.
The surprising win left Schnell in a quandary about what to do next with Escape Clause. He’s tempted to let her try to prove herself again, and there is the Grade I Matriarch at the same distance here on closing day, Dec. 2.
“My goodness, Grade I,” Schnell said. “I’ve never won a graded race — not any kind. I’ve never even run in a graded race. But I’d have to say all possibilities are open for her now. I know she like this turf course.”
Trainer Peter Miller, seeking his fourth fall training title at Del Mar, got off to a good start with victories by Eskenforadrink in the second race and Mongolian Window in the fourth. He is two wins shy of reaching 1,000 for his career.
Apprentice Luis Fuentes, 18 and brother of Ruben Fuentes, won on his first-ever mount at Del Mar aboard trainer Steve Knapp’s Clear the Mine in the first race.