Since arriving in Hot Springs, Ricardo Santana Jr. has owned what horsemen call the "three path" at Oaklawn.
When one of the jockey's mounts gets into contention three or four lanes off the fence, Santana more often than not can be found on the best horse. He's been stuck on eight riding championships at the track for a few years, and no longer is the first choice of longtime client Steve Asmussen -- but when that combination is clicking, the race many times is for second.
Regaining the mount Saturday, Santana kept Valentine Candy out of trouble for its third stakes win of the meeting in the $150,000 Ozark for 3-year-olds. Coming off the turn in full stride, the Justify colt scored a hat trick in Oaklawn stakes not around when he was foaled Feb. 14, 2021.
Santana watched Ramon Vazquez boot the chestnut colt home by 6 3/4 lengths in the Advent Dec. 8 and Joel Rosario hold serve by 1 3/4 lengths in the Renaissance Dec. 31. The Ozark, with Rosario out of town and Vazquez not involved, allowed Santana to restore a relationship with the winner that began in the colt's July 22 Saratoga debut at six furlongs.
"I broke his maiden at Saratoga and he's a really nice horse," Santana said. "I think this is my fourth time riding him. Today he surprised me how calm he was, how professional he was acting, how quick he broke from the gate. And he was much the best today."
Unlike his Triple Crown-winning sire and his broodmare sire, Candy Ride, neither of whom lost on the track, Valentine Candy could not keep a spotless record when wheeled back in the Grade 1 Hopeful Sept. 4 at Saratoga, finishing ninth of 10. Second and third in his next two starts, Valentine Candy has found a Shangri-La at Oaklawn, learning things with every start.
His mane a bit mussed after winning the Renaissance in traffic, Valentine Candy added a new dimension in the inaugural Ozark, which like the colt's last three morning exercises at the track came in the mud. A head in front in the upper stretch, he built the winning margin to 2 1/2 lengths with six furlongs in 1:10.32.
Favored for the third time, Valentine Candy paid $5 and boosted his career bankroll by $87,750 for principal owners Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt, of Houston, and investors Jackpot Farms, Whispering Oaks Farm LLC and Coteau Grove Farms LLC.
The Heiligbrodts also race Grade 3 Southwest beaten favorite Carbone, whose sire earned championship honors under Asmussen's tutelage for the former University of Texas sweethearts; Carbone ran Feb. 3 in the silks of recent Hot Springs investor Staton Flurry. Valentine Candy, four days before turning 3 by the calendar, had Santana in tack with the couple's distinctive silks, a single lone star against a white background.
"The last time ($150,000 Renaissance Stakes), he was covered up a little bit. Had to wait," Asmussen said, "Today, it was just perfect. The draw allowed it. Ricardo had him away from the gates very cleanly. The race unfolded to his inside and he went to them when he felt appropriate. Horse looked great through the line."
Time for Truth, a Dec. 31 Oaklawn winner for Little Rock's Harry Rosenblum and new investor Everett Dobson (Cheyenne Stable LLC), ran second by 1 1/2 lengths, completing a chalky $5.30 exacta for a $1 wager. Vitement, trained by Eddie Kenneally, ran third, four lengths clear of The Donegal Clan, a Dane Noel trainee with the only wet-track experience among the six Ozark starters.
Googol Joke and New Mexico stakes winner American Rascal, Keith Asmussen riding his father's other stakes mount, completed the field.
Three wins Saturday by Steve Asmussen, two with his son aboard, gave the Hall of Famer a meet-high 28, one day after posting his career track high 900th victory. The North American career leader with more than 10,000 victories, breaking the record last Presidents Day at Oaklawn, Asmussen has five stakes wins at the meet, his targets for Valentine Candy likely including the $150,000 Bachelor later in the local meeting.