Tonalist colt held off Royal Ship to win grade 1 race at Santa Anita Park.
The top two finishers in the April 17 Californian Stakes (G2) swapped places this time, with Country Grammer surging forward to retake the lead near the wire for the win.
Bob Baffert, who trains Country Grammer for WinStar Farm, said he thought the extra distance of the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup worked to Country Grammer’s advantage. In the 1 1/8-mile Californian, Royal Ship edged Country Grammer by a neck.
“He’s bred to go this far,” said Baffert. “I thought he was beat, but the way he came back like that—I’ve got to give Elliott Walden (of WinStar) credit. It was his idea to buy him.”
Walden, who works as president, CEO, and racing manager of WinStar, purchased Country Grammer for $110,000 out of the 2021 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, where the colt was consigned by Lane’s End, agent for the complete dispersal of the estate of Paul Pompa Jr. Now the 4-year-old son of Tonalist has repaid his connections and then some.
Seven lined up for the race, with Country Grammer sent away as the 9-5 favorite under Santa Anita leading rider Flavien Prat. San Pasqual Stakes (G2) winner Express Train went off as the 2-1 second choice, with Richard Mandella-trained Royal Ship third in the wagering at 3-1.
Chilean-bred longshot Brown Storm set the early pace, but Country Grammer and several others raced up close as well.
Brown Storm got the first quarter-mile in :22.92 and a half-mile in :47.16. Royal Ship moved up to third midway on the backstretch, jockey Mike Smith positioning his mount to challenge Country Grammer. Rushie was tucked into fourth on the rail.
Just before they entered the final turn, Country Grammer grabbed the lead away from Brown Storm. Royal Ship was also on the move outside of Country Grammer, and by the top of the stretch Royal Ship had forged to the front.
Just as they had in the Californian, Country Grammer and Royal Ship battled each other throughout the stretch, and it looked like Royal Ship would repeat his Californian victory. But Country Grammer wasn’t finished. He dug back, reasserting his authority, and put his head on the wire first to complete the 10 furlongs on the fast track in 2:02.23.
“He broke well and I was able to get myself in a good spot,” said Prat. “I was a little bit worried when I saw Mike Smith on the outside of me. I wish I could have kept him inside. Mike took the lead on me, but my horse was really game to come back.”
Baffert knew that Royal Ship would be tough, saying, “I have a lot of respect for Richard’s horse. He’s a really good horse.”
The trainer added that Country Grammer “got it done with a lot of class and determination.”
Country Grammer and Royal Ship proved much the best of the rest. Royal Ship finished 4 1/4 lengths ahead of third-place Express Train, who raced last early. Country Grammer paid $5.60 to win on a $2 ticket.
After WinStar purchased Country Grammer, they sent him to Baffert in California. The Gold Cup is only the second start the colt has made since the purchase. Previously, Chad Brown trained Country Grammer on the East Coast for the late Paul Pompa Jr. For Brown, Country Grammer won two of six races, including a neck victory over Caracaro in the 2020 Peter Pan Stakes (G3) at Saratoga Race Course.
“His form on the dirt was really good last year,” Baffert said. “It looked like he was beat today, but he kicked it in … It’s exciting. He ran a big race last time and just got beat. He was really ready to go today, and I think the distance was the key.”
Scott and Debbie Pierce bred Country Grammer in Kentucky from the winning Forestry mare Arabian Song. The mare is a half sister to English group-placed Bodes Galaxy, and also produced grade 3-placed Joyful Cadence , a 3-year-old filly by Runhappy who was second in the Purple Martin Stakes at Oaklawn Park this season. The mare’s last reported foal is an unnamed 2019 filly by Wicked Strong .
Baffert won his second consecutive Gold Cup, having saddled Improbable to take the race in 2020, and took home a record-equaling eighth win in the race overall. With the score, he tied the legendary Charlie Whittingham for most editions of the Gold Cup won by a trainer.