Last in a field of seven with a half mile to go, Qiaona
came rolling late under Corey Nakatani to take Saturday’s $100,000 California Distaff Handicap by a half length while getting 6 ½ furlongs down Santa Anita’s Camino Real turf course in 1:11.66.
Trained by Ed Moger, Jr., the 3-year-old filly by Wilko sat well off fractions of 21.70, 43.64 and 1:05.89 and was able to tag pacesetting Ismene and Mike Smith close home, as 4-5 favorite Bella Viaggia and Gary Stevens had to settle for third money.
Owned by Curt and Lila Lanning, Qiaona had been idle since winning a first condition allowance going 1 1/16 miles on turf at Del Mar Aug. 21, and had never run down Santa Anita’s unique hillside layout.
“That’s her, that’s her style of running,” said Nakatani, who was aboard for the first time Saturday. “You try not to change it, or leave her too much to do. She was spot-on today, she has that racing fight in her. I know that six and a half probably isn’t her best distance but the race set up for us and I knew she was going to put in a big kick.”
The fifth choice in the betting at 8-1, Qiaona paid $19.60, $6.60 and $4.00. With the winner’s share of $60,000, she increased her bankroll to $439,994. In her first try against older company, she improved her overall record to 15-4-4-2.
As expected, Ismene, who was drawn outside, dueled early with fellow speed merchant Tasty Treat and Rafael Bejarano, but the battle was short-lived, as Ismene soon gained the advantage and was allowed to set what would have to be considered a moderate pace.
“She ran incredible,” said Smith. “There’s not too many horses in the country that would have beat these two today…When we had a 43 (or) 44 half mile which helped a little bit, but she was happy and cruising on her own. My hat’s off to the winner, we just got run down…She tried hard.”
The second choice at 7-2, Ismene finished three quarters of a length in front of Bella Viaggia and paid $4.40 and $3.00.
Favored Bella Viaggia broke from the rail and sat a stalking trip down the hill under Stevens but lacked the necessary rally, finishing third, a half length in front of longshot Mia Lady and Victor Espinoza.
“I was in a perfect spot,” said an introspective Stevens. “I thought I had enough horse. I didn’t want to get stopped crossing the dirt and chose to swing out and it was a losing move. It was a horrible move. Mike (Smith, on Ismene) had horse and the winner got through where I was sitting, so it was a bad move on my part. The mare was ready. She ran her race and I didn’t do my job.
Bella Viaggia paid $2.10 to show.
Santa Anita will present a nine-race card on Sunday, with the $70,000 Anoakia Stakes for 2-year-old fillies serving as the feature. First post time is 1 p.m.