By Tracy Gantz
Air Force Red beat the rain and all of his rivals down Santa Anita Park‘s hillside turf course Dec. 31 in the $252,500 Joe Hernandez Stakes (G2T). The Southern California track carded its two turf stakes early, putting the Hernandez first in the hope the race could stay on the hill. It did, and Air Force Red continued to demonstrate that he navigates that course well.
Super Ocho , a speedy frontrunner who does most of his running on dirt, was scratched. Air Force Red’s trainer, Leonard Powell, and Aron Wellman of co-owner Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners had the same idea—let Air Force Red roll.
“The two times he won down the hill, he was on the lead,” Powell said. “And going a mile he had no trouble getting on the lead. He’s got a lot of natural speed.”
“He broke in front of everybody, and after that he was just really comfortable,” Hernandez said. “I felt like I was flying down the hill, but he was really comfortable, and nobody put any pressure on him.”
Air Force Red posted fractions of :22.19 and :43.65, led every step of the way, and had plenty in reserve to score by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:11.53 for the distance of about 6 1/2 furlongs. Lane Way didn’t threaten the winner but finished a good second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of closing Gregorian Chant , with Smooth Like Strait fourth.
“When we saw that Super Ocho was scratched—he looked like he was the speed of the race on paper,” Wellman said. “After that, we thought it was go time. I can’t say enough about the job Leo Powell has done with this colt, and every day we’re watching Juan Hernandez improve and blossom into just a complete star out there on the racetrack.”
Air Force Red has now won five of his 10 starts—three down the hill and his maiden win at 6 1/2 furlongs on the flat turf course. In his most recent victory, Air Force Red led throughout in the one-mile Lure Stakes.
The Hernandez, named for Santa Anita’s longtime track announcer who called the races from opening day in 1934 until his death in 1972, could propel Air Force Red to other races named for racing legends. Both the March 4 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1T) and May 29 Shoemaker Mile (G1T) could be “very exciting to think about” for Air Force Red, said Wellman.
“The big races in the spring are at a mile,” Powell said. “That was the goal of running here today, as a springboard to the two big races in the spring.”
Eclipse bought into Air Force Red privately after the Kentucky-bred broke his maiden last March and owns him in partnership with original owner Holly Golightly. The Stephen B. Weissman Living Trust bred Air Force Red, a 2018 son of Air Force Blue —Mesana , by Mizzen Mast . Mesana is the dam of two winners from five foals to race. Her two youngest offspring to date are a yearling and weanling colt, both sired by first-crop stallion City of Light .