The stretch run of Sunday's $400,000 Oak Tree Invitational was a Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside proposition.
But instead of the old Army football stars, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the names were Yashgan and Both Ends Burning, the latter a 5-year-old gelding who was trying to join Cougar II and John Henry as the only horses with multiple wins in the stake.
Yashgan, the winner, made a run on the inside despite most of the real estate belonging to Alydar's Best, the pacesetter and only filly in the race.
Both Ends Burning, who had rallied from ninth to win the Oak Tree last year, made a similar run from the outside and was gobbling up Alydar's Best and Cariellor, then in second place.
Chris McCarron, who will be remembered as the first--and maybe the only--jockey to draw a five-day suspension and then ride in stakes races three straight days in the middle of it, admitted that he and Yashgan were lucky along the fence.
"If I get through, I'm a hero," McCarron said. "If I don't, everybody would have been saying, 'What's he doing that for?' "
Yashgan and McCarron came out heroes. They were fortunate that Alydar's Best was tiring and drifted out just enough to give them room. Yashgan won by three-quarters of a length, with Both Ends Burning second, a neck better than Cariellor. Alydar's Best finished fourth, a length back of Cariellor.
Yashgan is an English-bred 4-year-old who was purchased by his seven American owners from the Aga Khan for a reported $350,000 in June. The colt earned $240,000 Sunday, running 1 1/2 miles on the grass in 2:27 1/5 and paying $6, $3.40 and $3 as the second betting choice behind Both Ends Burning in the crowd of 37,451. Both Ends Burning paid $3.20 and $2.60 and Cariellor returned $4.40.
Fernando Toro, riding Alydar's Best, said he was unaware that Yashgan was closing inside of him at the top of the stretch.
"My horse was drifting," Toro said. "It was the first time she's been exposed to sharp turns. I was just running my own race and not paying any attention to anybody else."
At the head of the stretch, McCarron's hopes rose and sank. "At first it looked like the filly was drifting out slightly and we'd be OK," McCarron said. "But then Fernando got her to come in a bit and I thought we'd be in trouble again. I really didn't have any choice. I was stuck where I was, because Pat (Valenzuela, riding Cariellor) was on the filly's flanks and there was no way to get out."
Although McCarron's suspension started Saturday, a California rule permits him to ride only in certain designated stakes, which included a race at Bay Meadows Saturday and the Oak Tree. He'll also ride tonight at Los Alamitos, because his five suspension days correspond with Santa Anita's racing schedule and the Arcadia track is closed today and Tuesday.
McCarron may have found a new way to prepare for a big race. "I played in Tim Conway's golf tournament all day, then showed up at the track about 3:45 in the afternoon," the jockey said.
The ground McCarron saved and the ground Both Ends Burning lost by going wide may have been the different, according to Russell Baze, who rode the second-place horse.
"We got carried a little wide," Baze said. "I was behind (Rafael) Meza (riding Talakeno), and didn't think anything would open up, so I swung my horse to the outside. Maybe we wouldn't have finished ahead of the winner anyway. But that's horse racing."
Yashgan came into the Oak Tree with a good record in France--four wins and three seconds out of eight starts--but he hadn't won in four American starts.
After three starts in which he was no better than fourth for trainer Joe Canty in New York, Yashgan came to John Sullivan's barn at Santa Anita and finished second, two lengths behind Tsunami Slew, in the Burke Handicap two weeks ago.
"He had trouble leaving the gate in that race, and that might have been a blessing in disguise," McCarron said. "If he had been in contention early, the way we wanted to be, the race might have taken so much out of him that he wouldn't have had anything left for this one."
Sherwood Chillingworth, the Pasadena real-estate developer who heads the Yashgan ownership, said that his group bought the cheaply bred colt after he won a race at Longchamp in early June.
"But the Aga wanted to run the horse one more time in his colors," Chillingworth said. "So we agreed to do that, and when he ran second, even though we technically owned him, the Aga still got the purse."
Sagace, later to be the disqualified winner of this year's Arc de Triomphe, beat Yashgan by two lengths in that race, a tipoff that Chillingworth and his partners had something. It just took a few races in the U.S. for Yashgan to find his best foot.