The last horse trained by Bill Mott to win the Donn Handicap ended up becoming immortalized in a statue that now overlooks the paddock walking ring at Gulfstream Park.
The horse was Cigar. The year: 1996.
It’s a little too early to contemplate any thought of Gulfstream commissioning a statue of Lea, the winner of Sunday’s 56th running of the Donn. But the mere mention of the great Cigar brought a smile to Mott’s face.
Cigar was a two-time Horse of the Year and matched a North American record by winning 16 consecutive races. Lea is riding a considerably-more-modest two-race win streak.
“Wouldn’t it be something if he clicked off a few more?” Mott asked, standing in the winner’s circle after Lea had his picture taken and headed back to his barn. “You know, if you’re going to win 16, you’ve got to start with two.”
Lea looked sensational Sunday, defeating 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge by 1 1/2 lengths and setting a track record in the process, completing the 1 1/8-mile stakes in 1:46.86.
The old mark of 1:47.49 was set in 2010 by Quality Road.
Then again, the racing surface Sunday was producing fast times. The sensational female sprinter Groupie Doll closed out her career by cruising to a lopsided win in the Hurricane Bertie Stakes earlier on the card, missing the track record for 6 1/2 furlongs by just two-hundredths of a second.
She was under a hand ride when she crossed under the wire.
But take nothing away from Lea’s performance.
As darkness was starting to set in, jockey Joel Rosario sent Lea past front-running Uncaptured on the backstretch and held off Will Take Charge’s rally in the stretch to prevail for his first victory in a Grade I event.
It was another 9 1/4 lengths further back to third-place finisher Viramundo.
“They had to set a track record to beat us, so that’s all you need to know,” said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge, who was making his first start of 2014 as the 3-2 favorite. “Kudos to the winner.”
Lea, a 5-year-old who raced primarily on grass early in his career, was making only his second start for Mott after changing barns in November. But he has won both of those starts: the Grade III Hal’s Hope in January and the Donn.
“It’s always a different challenge when you move to the dirt,” Mott said of Lea’s grass-to-dirt surface change. “I felt he was capable, but the competition was stiff, and we were in against a champion.”
Will Take Charge, winner of the Travers at Saratoga last August and runner-up to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was a bit closer to the early pace than normal, backed off rounding the final turn, circled horses entering the stretch and didn’t have enough kick to catch the winner.
“We got blocked for a bit and couldn’t get out, so we couldn’t move as quickly as we wanted to,” Lukas said of Will Take Charge. “That’s just horse racing.”
The Donn wasn’t the only Grade I event on Sunday’s card. In the race preceding the Donn, 35-1 long shot Lochte pulled off a stunning victory, charging through on the rail to win the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap by 2 3/4 lengths over Imagining for trainer Marcus Vitali and jockey Orlando Bocachica.