Astronaut proved he is a stakes-caliber horse; confirmed his ability at extended distances, and earned a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar on Nov. 6 with a surprise win in Saturday’s Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap.

Astronaut ($50) raced wide throughout the $302,500 Del Mar Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on turf and prevailed in the stretch to win his first stakes in his second appearance in such a race.

On June 19 at Santa Anita; Astronaut finished second in the Grade 3 San Juan Capistrano Stakes at about 1 3/4 miles on turf, the longest stakes in Southern California. The result led owner John O’Connor and trainer John Shirreffs to try the Del Mar Handicap, the top turf marathon of the Del Mar summer meeting.

“When he ran a mile and three-quarters, we weren’t sure he wanted that kind of distance,” Shirreffs said.

Astronaut handled a lengthy race that day; and again showed his affinity for a longer trip in the Del Mar Handicap. Ridden by Victor Espinoza, Astronaut was sixth on the first turn and seventh in a field of 11 with three furlongs remaining. Astronaut closed steadily to take the lead and won by a half-length over 22-1 Master Piece.

Astronaut was timed in 2:15.98 and earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 97.

Watch Astronaut racing to victory

Astronaut paid $50.00, $21.20 and $10.60 for his upset. Master Piece returned $25.00 and $14.80, while Acclimate paid off at $8.00.

Besides his winning purse, Astronaut also earned his owner an all-entry-fees-paid admission to the $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf, scheduled to be run at Del Mar on Saturday; November 6.

The Del Mar Handicap was Espinoza’s only mount of the day and his first ride since Aug. 12.

Espinoza said:

“This didn’t surprise me,” Espinoza said. “I thought in his last race he was a little too close.  And, I think the race (San Juan Capistrano) was a little too far for him; so we changed the way he ran a little bit today.  I just let him break and get into rhythm.  If he was happy, I was happy.  He wasn’t up on the bridle and running so easily that when we got to the half-mile pole, I started to get a little excited.  When I asked him, he finished strong for me, and it makes me happy to win this race for John (trainer Shirreffs).  We have a very good relationship.  He’s always been there for me and I’ve been there for him.  He’s been there for me a little more lately.” 

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