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Reprinted from Bloodhorse

Gift Box Edges McKinzie in Big ‘Cap Thriller

Top two came down to a photo finish on the line April 6 at Santa Anita Park.

The slimmest nostril was all that separated Gift Box from McKinzie in a photo finish April 6 after the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1) at Santa Anita Park.

After Gift Box took the lead off the turn for home in the 1 1/4-mile test, McKinzie had him in his sights, and the two hooked up for a battle down the length of the California stretch.

In the end, the big gray horse who is now thriving on the West Coast with Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler got the victory, while McKinzie’s camp had to settle for the toughest of seconds.

Mongolian Groom, a 53-1 shot, completed the trifecta in third behind a final time of 2:03.02.

Forwardly placed throughout, Gift Box rated second under Joel Rosario, and 2-5 favorite McKinzie was third under Mike Smith as longshot Prime Attraction loped along on the lead through opening fractions of :24.24, :49.23, and 1:13.70.

Midway around the far turn, Rosario, who had his mount well in-hand, cruised to the lead past Prime Attraction a quarter mile out and was immediately engaged to his outside by McKinzie.

From the three-sixteenths pole home, it was a classic head-and-head battle, with Gift Box emerging victorious in the final strides.

“It was a good race,” Rosario said. “He broke perfect out of there, and John told me to keep him close and when he wants to go, maybe follow someone. It was a good race turning for home. I knew McKinzie was coming for us in the last part. He showed a lot of heart today.”

Sadler and Hronis Racing took home their second Big ‘Cap win in a row. They won it last year with eventual champion older male Accelerate .

Gift Box, a 6-year-old horse by Twirling Candy, had not raced since his first Southern California start, a half-length win in the 1 1/16-mile San Antonio Stakes (G2) Dec. 26 at Santa Anita.

“This is very special,” said Sadler. “I grew up with this race. To win it two years in a row is incredible. I came here as a kid with Lou Rowan (owner/breeder and original board member of the Oak Tree Racing Association) when Quicken Tree won the Big ‘Cap (in 1970), so it means a great deal to me.

“Joel rode a great race. You could see he had a lot of horse around the turn, and he was just sitting on him. To beat a top horse like McKinzie in a photo like that. … We needed it because we lost that tough photo last week (with Catapult, who was beaten a nose by longshot Ohio in the grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile). This was the plan when we bought this horse, and it happened. We couldn’t be happier.”

Off as the 2-1 second choice in a field of six, Gift Box, earning his first grade 1 win, paid $6.20, $2.40, and $2.20.

“The crew really loves Gift Box,” said owner Kosta Hronis. “The barn, the exercise riders, John (Sadler) … they really like this horse, so we took a shot, and he proved himself. We are really proud of the last two races. I really thought Gift Box was going to win easy, but then McKinzie came flying. I didn’t see that coming, so I was grateful we got the bob.

“The Santa Anita Handicap is a big race for us. We grew up coming to this track, and we love everything that Santa Anita stands for. And to have this race get rescheduled and everything, Gift Box acted like a professional and waited patiently, and it turned out great. It’s really good that we didn’t have to travel with him and he could stay home and win this race. This was a very important race to us. He’s exactly who we think he is, and I had no doubt. It is exceptional the trust with John and the team and their decision-making. It is always special, and it means a lot.”

Gift Box was bred in Kentucky by Machmer Hall, Carrie Brogden, and Craig Brogden out of the Unbridled’s Song mare Special Me, who foaled a Medaglia d’Oro filly in 2018 and dropped a daughter of Into Mischief March 23. The Santa Anita Handicap was his second straight graded score and third consecutive win overall and improved his record to 5-5-2 from 15 starts, with earnings of $879,160. He was acquired in 2013 by W.S. Farish for $135,000 from Select Sales’ consignment to The November Sale, Fasig-Tipton’s mixed sale in Lexington, Ky., and raced 13 times on the East Coast for Farish and trainer Chad Brown before he was purchased privately by his current connections.