Emotions Abound For Winning Connections On Del Mar Opening Day

True to the words sung live by track founder Bing Crosby in 1938 that are heard by recording every day, there was “a winner in each race” on opening day Wednesday.

Reactions and thoughts from some of them:

Trainer Doug O’Neill — For the second year in a row, O’Neill won the first race of the meeting for an ownership group that includes the Great Friends Stable headed by San Diego radio personality Scott Kaplan and Del Mar Executive Vice President and Marketing Officer Craig Dado. It was the only win of the day for Team O’Neill – which kicked off the 2018 season winning four of the first five races. But far be it from O’Neill to complain.

“It’s special to start it off with a win for them,” O’Neill said of Great Friends, who filled the winner’s circle nearly to overflowing. “They bring a lot of people who love racing. They have parties before the meeting starts and they come out and support their horses, love to meet the jockeys and just be a part of everything.”

Julius, a recent purchase brought in from the Midwest as a “Ship and Win” program prospect, won by 11 ¼ lengths as the favorite under Rafael Bejarano, paying $3.60. Julius is one of a dozen or so horses O’Neill has for Great Friends.

“We had friends back east who told us about him and we liked what we saw and got Great Friends and some others involved,” O’Neill said. “We think (Julius) might have a bright future. We’ll look for a first-condition allowance for him next.”

Trainer Dan Ward – The assistant to Jerry Hollendorfer took out his trainer’s license in the wake of the Hall of Famer’s suspension and won with his second starter. King Jack ($4.80) prevailed by 1 ¼ lengths under Mike Smith as the favorite in the ninth race.  King Jack is owned by longtime Hollendorfer client Michael C. Stinson.

“It was pretty emotional with the situation being what it is,” Ward said Thursday morning. “Glad to have Mike Smith to ride and the support from others. I was anxious, but I got more confident when I watched Mike in the stretch because he looked like he was confident.”

Stinson said the experience was “perfect” for him. “Mixed emotions with Jerry’s situation, obviously, but really proud of the horse.”

Hall of Fame Jockey Victor Espinoza — Espinoza put an exclamation point on his return to Del Mar from the serious injury incurred here last year with a victory aboard Storming Lady ($14.60) in the fifth race.

It was win No. 611 at Del Mar for Espinoza, who ranks No. 10 on the track’s all-time list. Win No. 610 was accomplished in the first race on July 21, 2018 aboard Chasin Lucas for trainer Mark Glatt. The following morning Espinoza incurred spinal injuries when Bobby Abu Dhabi broke down in a morning workout. Despite the career-threatening nature of the injuries, a rigorous rehabilitation program led to Espinoza returning to riding on February 18 at Santa Anita.

“It feels great to get the first one out of the way,” Espinoza said Thursday morning. “I didn’t think about what happened a year ago. I always try to think positive and just go forward.”

Trainer Craig Lewis – Freedom Ride ($8.60) was a wire-to-wire winner under Jorge Velez for the veteran conditioner in the sixth race. In the seventh, Lewis and Velez combined on a third-place finish with Warren’s Showtime.

“I wasn’t surprised (with the win),” Lewis said Thursday morning. “I was kind of surprised I didn’t win two because I loved (Warren’s Showtime) and couldn’t see why she was 30-1. I guess the race (five furlongs) was a little too short for her.”

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