HOT SPRINGS -- Since arriving in Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. has owned what horsemen call the "three path" at the track.
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 Oaklawn meeting in the $150,000 Ozark Stakes 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 on Dec. 8 and Joel Rosario hold serve by 1 3/4 lengths in the Renaissance on 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 Saturday. "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 I Hopeful on Sept. 4 at Saratoga, finishing ninth of 10. Second and third in his next two starts, Valentine Candy has found success 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 past 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 Carbone, who was a beaten favorite in last week's Grade III Southwest and whose sire earned championship honors under Asmussen's tutelage.
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 in the $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 of Cheyenne Stable LLC, ran second by 1 1/2 lengths, completing a chalky $5.30 exacta for a $1 wager. Vilament, 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. He has five stakes wins at the meet.