Oh Zuzanna! Ex-claiming horse captures Del Mar stakes race; gelding dies in workout

Zuzanna and jockey Paco Lopez won the Red Carpet Stakes on Saturday at Del Mar.
Zuzanna and jockey Paco Lopez won the Red Carpet Stakes on Saturday at Del Mar.
(Benoit photo

There was one very good reason why trainer Bob Hess Jr. was hesitant to enter 5-year-old mare Zuzanna in the $100,000 Grade III Red Carpet Handicap on Saturday, Nov. 30, at Del Mar.

“I’d never claimed a horse for $8,000 that won a Grade III race,” Hess reasoned.

The Chula Vista native has done it now.

In a win filled with plenty of warm side stories, Zuzanna — claimed for $8,000 in September 2018 — split horses in the final turn, took the lead at mid-stretch under jockey Paco Lopez’s urging and held on to snag the $60,000 first-place money in the first graded run of her 32-race career.

On a day when there were four turf stakes races staged at Del Mar, Lopez, who is based on the East Coast, won three of them, also hitting the wire first with trainer Michael Stidham’s Alms ($7.40) in the Grade III $100,000 Jimmy Durante and Grade I $300,000 Hollywood Derby aboard Peter Miller’s Mo Forza ($7.60).

The $200,000 Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap was captured by Next Shares. The 6-year-old gelding, trained by Richard Baltas and ridden by Jose Valdivia, Jr., went off at 27-1 and paid $56.40.

Off at 23-1, Zuzanna paid $48, with trainer Dallas Keen’s Curlin’s Journey finishing second and Michael McCarthy’s Vibrance taking third.

The winner’s circle was a place of happy tears.

“It’s not about necessarily winning a stakes race; it’s about doing it with your friends and family,” Hess said. “And Zuzanna is part of our family.”

The claiming of Zuzanna brought together people who had been friends for years. Kurt Hoover, a longtime TVG host and analyst, went in on the purchase with a friend from high school, Brian Ferguson, and a loyal client of Hess’s, Jeff Lambert, of Del Mar. Hess said he’s known Hoover since they met around the racetracks of Southern California more than 30 years ago.

Hess recalled that Hoover wanted to buy Zuzanna for $16,000, but they eventually got her for half that. Immediately after the purchase, the horse underwent surgery to fix a “lazy flap” in her throat.

Before the claim, Zuzanna was 0 for 4. After Hess took over, she won three of her next four starts, though going into the Red Carpet she hadn’t prevailed in her last four tries. Hess was planning to soon ship her off to Florida for the rest of the winter.

It was Hoover who coaxed the group into giving Zuzanna a shot in the Red Carpet, but he also was the one to point to Hess for her success.

“Most or all of the credit goes to this guy right here, because of the job he did to get her right,” Hoover said. “It took a lot to get her back to a race.”

Hess said he is proud of how Zuzanna is performing at the age of 5.

“It’s wonderful in our game the way it is right now, with all of the issues we’ve had,” Hess said. “This filly, she’s getting up there in age, and she is pristine healthy from every possible aspect.”

Horse dies in training

Del Mar suffered its first training death of the fall meeting when Koa, a 3-year-old gelding trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, suffered a breakdown in a workout and had to be euthanized on Saturday morning, Nov. 30.

Owned by Michael Stinson, Koa had three wins in 10 lifetime starts and in his last race finished second in an upper-level allowance sprint at Del Mar on Nov. 14.

In the fall meet that ends on Sunday, Dec. 1, five horses have died: two were euthanized because of injuries suffered in racing; one died from complications from surgery after being injured in a race; one suffered an apparent heart attack after training; and one, Koa, broke down while working out.

Hollendorfer was a controversial figure when he was the trainer with the most deaths (four) among 30 during the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita.

The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, banned Hollendorfer from its racetracks, while the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club lost a court decision in July when it tried to prevent him from entering races during its summer meet.

—Tod Leonard is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune