ARLINGTON HEIGHTS -- The history-rich Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap carried a pot of $150,000 and saw two local stars, WILLCOX INN and MISTER MARDI GRAS, do battle against four others. The six traveled a nine-furlong lap around the Arlington polytrack on an overcast late-August afternoon.
It appeared on paper that the pair would be the favorites, but early wagering saw out-of-towner AGENT DI NOZZO take a fair amount of money, and be sent off as the slight favorite at 2-1 odds. MISTER MARDI GRAS would also be sent off at 2-1 odds. WILLCOX INN would be made the third choice at 2.10-1.
So with the three taking a lot of the tote action, they all broke in fine order, with the early lead ceded to 10-1 outsider GALLANT EAGLE. Not getting the memo about these three imposing runners having the race to themselves, GALLANT EAGLE broke off to a quick lead and then rated and stayed on it, with the clock reading :24.69 for the quarter, :49.81 for the half mile, 1:14.06 for the three quarters. Turning into the stretch, GALLANT EAGLE still maintained the lead as he had every step before with WILLCOX INN making a wide but steady rally. GALLANT EAGLE at the rail gamely battled the closing WILLCOX INN, with the two locked in a thrilling stretch battle.
At the line, WILLCOX INN proved best by a nose, with the four-year-old by Harlan's Holiday earning his first victory of the year and first graded stakes triumph since the 2011 G3 Hawthorne Derby. Pacesetter GALLANT EAGLE was second, a neck to the better of closer HATTASH. MISTER MARDI GRAS rounded out the superfecta.
The locally popular and frequent jockey/trainer team of James Graham and Michael Stidham earned the G3 victory on WILLCOX INN. As the third choice at 2.10-1 odds, he rewarded his backers with $6.20 win mutuels. Winning time for the mile and an eighth was 1:49.62, a quick time that's only .35 seconds off last year's record.
Winning trainer Michael Stidham commented post-race how he "put WILLCOX INN in some tough spots all year long. If there was ever a photo we needed to win, this was the one. This little horse, he tries every time. He got the job done and (jockey James) Graham did a great job."
Winning rider James Graham complimented the winner's toughness as "the other horse came back on him and he fought him all the way to the wire, head down and he threw his nose done on it in front. He quickened up real well, he just had to fight all the way to the wire."
With designs on making WILLCOX INN a millionaire, trainer Michael Stidham will potentially aim the G3 Washington Park winner to the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile in October during the Keeneland Fall meet.
The $2 5-4 exacta of WILLCOX INN and GALLANT EAGLE paid $62.40. The fifty-cent 5-4-2 trifecta of WILLCOX INN, GALLANT EAGLE, and HATTASH returned $115.30. Dime superfectas with MISTER MARDI GRAS in the fourth position netted $58.81.
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