Express Train, consistently in the top flight on the dirt, repelled challenges from both inside and outside to score in the $251,500 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar July 17. Racing between favored Royal Ship, bidding along the rail, and Tripoli, Express Train defeated Tripoli by a half-length, with Royal Ship another three-quarters of a length back in third.
The 1 1/16-mile San Diego is the first graded stakes of Del Mar’s summer season. It serves as a prep for the biggest race of the meeting, the $750,000 TVG Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles Aug. 21.
When the starting gate opened in the San Diego, Express Train broke alertly on top. Rushie surged forward to take the lead from the rail, with jockey Juan Hernandez keeping Express Train just off Rushie’s first quarter-mile in :22.97. Meanwhile, Mike Smith had the favorite in stalking position in fourth along the rail.
Express Train maintained his position down the backstretch, never more than a length behind the lead while Rushie clicked off a half-mile in :47.16. As the field headed into the second turn, Express Train moved up to engage Rushie, and the two raced head and head, with Mo Mosa mounting a bid outside of them.
Express Train took the lead into the stretch and then had to deal with Royal Ship and Tripoli. Royal Ship found a hole on the rail while Tripoli had momentum on the outside. Express Train refused to yield. He gamely fought off both rivals, timed in 1:43.37 on a fast track for the distance.
“He broke real sharp today, and that was the key,” said Hernandez, who won his first San Diego and his eighth stakes at Del Mar. “I stayed aggressive with him. He likes it and runs well when you do.”
Under the handicap weight assignments, Express Train carried 123 pounds, one less than Royal Ship but five more than Tripoli.
“I thought he was in a good spot the whole way, right off Rushie,” Shirreffs said. “Then when he was asked in the stretch, he responded well.”
Shirreffs won his second San Diego. He won the race in 2006 with Giacomo. Shirreffs also saddled Giacomo to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby.
Alhough 4-year-old Express Train had not won since the Jan. 30 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita Park, he ran well in his three subsequent starts — second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, third in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and third in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. The only time Express Train has finished worse than fourth in 12 efforts was in his only attempt on turf when he was steadied early in the race.
Dixiana Farms bred Express Train, a son of Union Rags out of I’m a Flake , by Mineshaft, in Kentucky.
Shirreffs indicated that Express Train, who has a 4-4-2 record and earnings of $659,300, would likely compete in the Pacific Classic “if everything works out.”