Coming off a 10-month layoff, defending champion Mobile Bay appeared to be on his way to a romp in the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic on Saturday at the Fair Grounds.
Mobile Bay, the 5-2 favorite, wound up edging Grande Basin by a nose to win the 27th running of the race.
Mobile Bay led by as many as eight lengths through the first half of the race. Jockey Diego Saenz said he thought Mobile Bay, who hadn't raced since February, would run out of gas in the late stretch.
“I was kind of worried about it because he was aggressive the first part of the race,” Saenz said. “He's not easy to take back; he's a big horse. I'm glad everything ended up right.”
The victory made Mobile Bay one of five horses to win the Champion's Day Classic twice, the previous last being Sunbean in 2013 and '14. Mobile Bay, a 5-year-old, had last raced in February when he won the Premier Night Championship Stakes at Delta Downs. That win put him past the $1 million mark.
However, he was rested after that race, then had a fever, lost weight and missed his scheduled first race back. He took in $90,000 for winning the Classic.
“It feels great to repeat as champion,” trainer Victor Arceneaux said of Mobile Bay. “I was concerned, but Mobile Bay showed he's still the man.”
It was the second consecutive in-the-money performance for Grande Basin, who was third in the Heitai Overnight Stakes on Nov. 18. He came into the Classic at 5-1 third odds. Trainer Edward Johnston said he's pleased with the progress of Grande Basin, who continues to do well at the Fair Grounds.
Although his horse lost by only the closest of margins, Johnston said something that didn't happen hurt Grande Basin and the rest of the field. Grande Basin, who briefly took a slight lead as they neared the wire, won $30,000, a nose costing him $60,000.
“Nobody pressed that horse (Mobile Bay),” said Johnston, who'd hoped an early fast pace setter would tire out Mobile for the stretch. “You can't afford that with a horse that big, letting him just gallop around the track. He looked like a man among boys.”
When Mobile Bay was about eight lengths ahead of the field, Grande Basin was last, about 13 lengths back on the rail. About the half-mile pole, he started passing horses. He was second heading into the wire.
“Mobile Bay took a little breather, and we came and got him, but he's got so much class,” Johnston said.