Trainer George Leonard III walked into Keeneland on Oct. 13 never before having saddled a graded stakes winner. He departed the Lexington track that evening safe in the knowledge that he very well could be celebrating his first Breeders’ Cup victory next month.
The mantra that good horses can come from anywhere played out once more over the Keeneland turf on Wednesday when 17-1 shot California Angel, a $5,500 purchase at public auction, came from the clouds to edge Diamond Wow by a head and capture the $200,000 JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes (G2) for 2-year-old fillies.
With the victory, California Angel earned a fees-paid berth into the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) to be run Nov. 5 at Del Mar. While Leonard didn’t have to be asked twice if he would start making shipping plans for the daughter of California Chrome, the Indiana Grand-based conditioner did have to take a moment to gather his emotions as the reality of winning the first graded stakes he ever entered set in.
“I thought I had a special filly from the beginning, but I never dreamed of being here and winning this,” Leonard said. “It’s just been a dream come true. Everything’s worked well, got an excellent rider in (Rafael Bejarano). I thought she could win with a little luck, honestly. We’re looking forward to California.”
It was only a handful of months ago that Leonard recommended to owner Chris Walsh that he purchase California Angel out of the OBS June 2-year-olds and Horses of Racing Age sale. Her final price may not have raised many eyebrows but she definitely drew attention once she made her career debut, a last-to-first rally in a one-mile maiden race at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 8.
“I thought that was a good price for her, and I thought she’d make us some money,” Leonard said after her maiden win. “And she’s proven to be 10 times what I thought she’d be in the beginning. Her mom (Sea Mona) ran on the turf, and Chrome’s offspring does well on the turf. So I just decided to give her a shot.”
Leonard subsequently opted to give California Angel a shot on the dirt in a six-furlong allowance optional claiming test at Churchill Downs on Sept. 30 and, while she ran admirably enough to finish third that day, her turn of foot was most effective when put back on the lawn in the 1 1/16-miles Jessamine.
With 4-5 favorite Turnerloose quickly bounding out for the lead in the field of 13, California Angel raced near the rear of the field while the former put up fractions of :23.59 and :47.73 over a course rated good. With Florent Geroux aboard, Turnerloose maintained a daylight advantage until upper stretch when Diamond Wow applied pressure.
At the head of the lane, California Angel had one horse beat as Bejarano swung her eight-wide for a clear run at the field. She was still five lengths back at the eighth pole and got up in the final yards to ease by Diamond Wow and Turnerloose.
“She had a good turn of foot today,” said Bejarano. “I just wanted to keep her out of trouble. (Down the stretch) I could have gone inside, but when I saw it was kind of tight I wanted to get her clear and let her run. I know she was going to come running at the end. She did. She proved it today.”
California Angel covered the distance in 1:44.30. Diamond Wow, ridden by Mike Smith, returned $10 and $5.40 and finished a neck in front of Turnerloose, who paid $2.60 to show.
Bred by Irish National Stud out of the Tiz Wonderful mare Sea Mona. California Angel increased her career earnings to $213,700 with Wednesday’s $120,000 check.
“George has been so high on her,” Walsh said after California Angel’s win at Kentucky Downs. “From Day One, he was like, ‘I can’t even sleep at night. This girl is so good’.”