FARMINGTON — Trainers Barbara Brown and Todd Fincher each took top honors in the two stakes races run for New Mexico-bred two-year-olds Tuesday at SunRay Park and Casino.
Contrary to the popular opinions of many, however, the winners may not have been the ones either trainer expected.
Brown saddled Shug's Hope - dismissed by many as a near 11-to-1 longshot - to victory in the C.O. Ken Kendrick Memorial Stakes, while Fincher's one-two punch in the Totah Futurity was headed by another longshot in Mr. Digger.
Shug's Hope, owned by Jerry and Sheree Cannon and winless in each of her last three starts, earned the biggest win in her five-race career with a late-running, three-quarters of a length win over heavily favored Tilla Cat in the 4 1-2 furlong dash.
A daughter of Shame On Charlie, Shug's Hope and jockey Elvin Gonzalez were prominent throughout in the trip up the backstretch. Racing into a sometimes severe headwind, Tilla Cat and Domesday Gal dueled for the early lead, carving out a quick quarter-mile time of 21.84 seconds. Shug's Storm sat chilly midpack, about three lengths by the leaders.
Domesday Gal, ridden by Aldo Arboleda, was the first to succumb to the early pace pressure, leaving Tilla Cat on the lead by herself rounding the far turn. Shug's Hope raced wide into the lane and gradually wore down the pacesetter inside the final furlong and came away with the hard-fought win. She crossed the wire in a final time of 52.59 seconds.
"We always knew she could run," Brown said after the win. "She got a really bad trip in her last out, but we're so happy she came on late here."
Gonzalez, last year's leading thoroughbred rider at SunRay, was riding Shug's Hope for the first time in her career. In her last outing, Shug's Hope beat only two horses in the Rio Grande Senorita Futurity at Ruidoso Downs on July 25.
The victory was worth $30,000 to Shug's Hope's connections, which raises her bankroll to over $53,000. Her backers at the windows were rewarded with a $23.80 return on their investment.
Tilla Cat, ridden by Ruby Gonzalez, was four lengths clear of the rest of the field when second. She was followed by Bloss, What A Flag, Dom Fine, Domesday Gal, Jims Baby Girl, Rogue Divergent, Chelsea Mak and Dandy Dom.
Brown had to be feeling confident in her chances of sweeping the stakes races after the upset win in the Kendrick, since she was sending out morning-line favorite Seasalt N Vinegar in the Totah Stakes.
But Fincher would have the last laugh, twice.
Fincher sent out Mr. Digger and this season's current thoroughbred riding leader Alfredo Juarez Jr., to a 1 1-2 length win over the Fincher-trained Casey Jones Who in the Totah.
Mr. Digger, owned by Helen Nave, led throughout the 4 1-2 furlong dash, battling down the backstretch with Casey Jones Who and Back Seat Hero through an opening quarter mile of 21.93 seconds. Juarez angled the son of Quinton's Gold close to the rail turning for home, then had enough late to maintain his advantage. The clock was stopped at 52.47 seconds.
"I thought this race was very contentious," Fincher said after the race. "There were quite a few in here who I thought could win, so we're very lucky that it turned out the way it did."
Mr. Digger picked up his second career win from four starts. He broke his maiden in his second start on June 12 at Ruidoso Downs before finishing up the track in a trial for the Rio Grande Senor Futurity on July 11.
The win in the Totah was worth $30,000 to Mr. Digger's connections, improving his bankroll to over $37,000. Sent off at odds of 10.40-to-1, the win was worth $22.80 to his winning backers.
Casey Jones Who finished second for the fourth time in his five-race career. His lone win came here on July 7.
"I get the feeling he wants a little more distance," Fincher said of the runner-up. "He made a nice run at the winner, but he wasn't getting to him."
Casey Jones Who, ridden by Arboleda, was more than a length clear of the rest of the field, which included Seasalt N Vinegar, Happy Havta Go, Dax 'N' Brax, Naevussquall, Deb's Pretty Boy, Back Seat Hero, Triple Diamonds and Mr Moo.
Steve Bortstein hosts "First Sports" and "The Fast Track" on Fox Sports 1340 AM and 93.9 FM and on iHeartRadio. He serves as paddock show host at SunRay Park & Casino and is a voting member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Follow him @fox1340am on Twitter.