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Santa Anita: Royal Ship edges Country Grammer to win Californian Stakes

ARCADIA — The fans who showed up Saturday at Santa Anita got more than their money’s worth while watching the $200,000 Grade II Californian Stakes.

Royal Ship and Country Grammer battled the length of the stretch, two Hall of Fame trainers’ horses battling head and head the entire way, until the former prevailed by a neck in the 1 1/8-mile test for 3-year-olds and up.

For Royal Ship, trained by Richard Mandella, it was the 5-year-old Midshipman gelding’s first victory in two tries on a fast main track. His previous five wins came on the turf in Brazil, most recently in February 2020.

Royal Ship, the 5-1 fourth choice in the betting, raced well off the pace in his first four races in the U.S., but Saturday he tracked pacesetter Country Grammer (7-2) from second until the quarter pole, when the two turned the Californian into a match race.

“We wanted to be closer today,” Mandella said. “He’s fast enough, we didn’t need him back off the pace and getting into trouble again.”

Royal Ship had raced on the dirt only once in the U.S., finishing fourth in the Grade III Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar on Nov. 21.

Mandella had little doubt he’d take to the main track.

“He’s always trained well on dirt, and the only time we ran him on it, he fell on his face leaving the gate,” he said. “We didn’t have a grass race to point for, so this looked like a good spot.”

Jockey Mike Smith, another Hall of Famer, has ridden Royal Ship in all five of his U.S. races. He remembers the adventuresome Native Diver well.

“I’ve been very unlucky leaving the gate with him on several different occasions,” he said.

Smith had guided Royal Ship during the Grade II Del Mar Mile (third), the Grade II City of Hope Mile (sixth), and Grade I Kilroe Mile (fifth) in addition to the Native Diver Stakes.

“He fought really hard today,” Smith said. “It took me a little bit to figure him out. I told Mr. Mandella, ‘I was a little slow in school as well, but once I got it figured out, I was pretty good.’ … I finally got it right today and he proved he’s that kind of horse.”

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