FARMINGTON — Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr., sensing an early moderate-pace scenario aboard Atillas Gift in Monday's $44,800 Jack Cole Handicap at SunRay Park and Casino, took advantage of the situation and wound up holding off the late charge of a brutally unlucky D E Lover to score a mild upset win.
Atillas Gift, ridden to perfection by the journeyman rider, stalked a sensible pace before taking command of the field into the backstretch of the one-mile affair. Arroyo stayed close to the fence, nursing a short lead into the turn and battling with D E Lover until very deep in the lane. He posted a 1-length victory for trainer Todd Fincher and owners Scott Bryant and Joe Dee Brooks.
The 4-year-old New Mexico-bred son of Attila's Storm earned his first career stakes victory while winning for the fifth time from 21 career starts. Atillas Gift ran the mile in a time of one minute, 37.86 seconds.
"I thought they were going to go faster early on," Arroyo Jr. said after the race. "But when they let me have the lead, I took it."
The race, for New Mexico-bred older thoroughbreds named in honor of the late chairman of the New Mexico Horseman's Association, appeared to have an abundance of pace. But the race isn't run on paper, and Arroyo's decision paid off with a mild upset victory.
"The pace was slower than I expected and when they didn't come up for the lead early, I was in the right spot," Arroyo Jr. said in the winner's circle.
Bred by one of the state's most prominent horsemen in R.D. Hubbard, Atillas Gift was sent off as the 4.80-to-1 fourth choice on the toteboard in the field of six runners. His winning backers at the windows were rewarded with an $11.60 return on their $2 investment.
The win added over $26,800 to the career bankroll of Atillas Gift, who now has amassed lifetime earnings of over $160,000.
D E Lover might have lost all chance at the start when he hopped in the air as the gates opened. Ridden by Frank Reyes, D E Lover moved up quickly to press the pace into the first turn and stayed with the winner until deep stretch. But he tired late, and settled for the place well ahead of Chasing Our Dreams who rallied late for third.
Sent off as the post-time favorite at odds of 19-to-10, D E Lover has been unlucky at the start in each of his last couple races. Last time out at Sunland Park as the post-time favorite, a slow break also cost the son of So Long Birdie a better placing.
Behind Chasing Our Dreams across the wire were Rising Giant, Jacks Party and Citizen Geller. Grand Flame was scratched earlier in the day.
Live racing at SunRay resumes on Friday with a nine-race quarter-horse program that begins at 3 p.m. The highlight of the Friday card is the $46,200 New Mexico Breeders Stakes for 3-year-olds racing 400 yards.
Rg Miracle, last year's New Mexico Breeders Futurity winner for trainer Ken Grisham and most recently second in the Animas Stakes here opening day, has been installed as the 5-to-2 morning-line favorite with Jimmy Coates named to ride.
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.