Trainer Michael Machowsky knew Kelly Leak was capable of winning the $900,000 Sunland Park Derby if he got a decent trip, and when he saw the leaders cover the first quarter-mile in a blistering 22.07 seconds, he knew his talented closer had them right where he wanted them.
Kelly Leak earned his first stakes victory in the richest race in New Mexico history Sunday at Sunland Park, using his come-from-behind running style to rally for a 1 ½-length victory over Mythical Power.
None of the three horses who battled for the early lead and covered the first half-mile in 45.32 seconds – Santamonicacanyon, Mayor Marv and Valid Stripes – finished better than eighth in the field of a dozen 3-year-olds, as Kelly Leak passed his tired rivals while making his move around the final turn. Kelly Leak, running for the first time under Mike Smith, a native of Roswell, N.M., went three wide to set up his strong stretch run and finished the nine-furlong test in 1:50.02.
“It all went kind of perfectly,” Machowsky said. “He got a good trip, and they were knocking heads pretty quick on the front end. I was pretty darn confident in him. My only concern was that it was a mile and an eighth, and that’s the farthest he’s ever gone, so I thought that was the only thing that could get him beat. But he’s always had a good finishing kick, so we just wanted to give him a good trip.”
Kelly Leak, bred in Florida by Luis de Hechavaria, was favored in the race and returned mutuels of $6.60, $4 and $3.40. Mythical Power paid $7.20 and $4.80 after finishing 1 ½ lengths ahead of Scorewithcater, who returned $5.80 to show.
The victory rewarded Machowsky for his decision to scratch Kelly Leak from the $200,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita on March 14, where the son of Runaway Groom would have had to take on leading Kentucky Derby (G1) prospect Pioneerof the Nile. Machowsky said at the time that he felt Kelly Leak was ready to run his best race, but he wanted to make sure the horse would earn as big a paycheck as possible for his effort.
The Sunland Derby’s $500,000 winner’s share boosted Kelly Leak’s career earnings to $621,890. The race was originally valued at $800,000, but in an effort to draw talented horses and eventually earn graded status for the race, Sunland Park offered to boost the purse if the field included horses with graded stakes earnings.
Kelly Leak fit the bill, having run fourth in the Best Pal Stakes (G2) at Del Mar in August. He had finished first in that race but was disqualified and placed fourth because of interference during the stretch run, and Azul Leon was awarded the victory.
Prior to Sunday, Kelly Leak had only run on dirt once, finishing third to fellow Florida-bred This Ones for Phil in the Sunshine Millions Dash at Gulfstream Park in January. He broke his maiden on the Hollywood Park artificial surface last June and earned his first turf victory in an allowance at Santa Anita last month. Kelly Leak has won three of his eight starts and has finished in the money six times.
“The nice thing about him is he’ll run on anything,” Machowsky said. “We’ll keep him on dirt for a while because there are so many opportunities, but right now, I’m not quite sure what we’ll do. We’ll have to look and see. You don’t have to run all that often when you run for this kind of money.”
Kelly Leak is out of the World Appeal mare Hasty Appeal and is owned by a group led by Blahut Racing LLC.