Trainer Ben Cecil's first Grade I victory didn't come easily Sunday at Hollywood Park.
Six weeks after defeating stablemate Fanjica by a head in the Santa Barbara Handicap, Donna Viola won an even closer photo Sunday, beating 9-1 shot Real Connection by barely a nose in the $200,000 Gamely Handicap.
Ridden by Gary Stevens, the 17-10 second choice looked beaten at the top of the stretch, but ground out her 11th victory in 29 starts for Cecil and owner Gary Tanaka.
She completed the 1 1/8 miles on turf in 1:47 2/5. For Real Connection, it was the second loss in a graded stakes in less than a month. She was beaten by a nose by Blushing Heiress in the Wilshire Handicap on May 11.
But don't shed any tears for the 6-year-old mare's owner, Bill Thomas. The one-eyed gray, who has only six wins in 52 starts, has earned more than $755,000.
A winner in three of four starts in this country, Donna Viola probably will return in the Beverly Hills Handicap on June 29 and that Grade I is at 1 1/4 miles, probably her best distance.
Different, the 8-5 favorite, was third, beaten by a nose by Real Connection and by a neck by Donna Viola. It was the first loss in three starts on grass for the 5-year-old mare, who probably will get another shot at the winner in the Beverly Hills, a race she won last year.
Not since Cutlass Reality in 1988 has the winner of the Californian returned to win the Hollywood Gold Cup, and that pattern probably won't change this year.
With such horses as Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen absent from the final prep for the $1-million Gold Cup on June 29, River Keen, a 5-year-old Irish-bred who had been running in less-than-stellar races in Europe, upset favored Hesabull on Sunday, winning by a length in 1:47 1/5 for the 1 1/8 miles of the Californian.
Trained by Bob Hess, Jr., River Keen, a 7-1 shot, sat close to the slow pace on the outside under Kent Desormeaux and got the best of Hesabull in the final strides. Benchmark, the 2-1 second choice, was third.