By Ben Everill
ARCADIA, California (Reuters) - America's horse of the year and 4-5 favorite Wise Dan defended his $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park on Saturday despite an early stumble out of the gate and being ridden by a replacement jockey.
John Velazquez was supposed to ride Wise Dan but had to have emergency surgery following an earlier race fall and was replaced by Jose Lezcano, who steered the gelding to a powerful win.
Sitting well poised behind the pace for the majority of the race, Wise Dan reeled in the leaders down the final straight with ease.
A stumble out of the gate meant he was unable to match last year's track record but his 1:32:47 winning time was just 0.69 seconds behind his impressive mark.
"He stumbled out of the gate really bad," Lezcano said. "He tried to break so fast that he just lost his balance.
"I had to let him go. He tried to go to plan B, you know, waiting, and he gave me a good run and won the race. He's a champion horse."
It was the 19th win of the six-year-old's career from 27 starts. He has won 15 of his last 18 races.
Kentucky bred Za Approval, an 18-1 chance, claimed second while 31-1 outsider Silentio finished third.
Wise Dan trainer Charles LoPresti admitted to a few nervous feelings given the rough start.
"I didn't realize he stumbled so badly leaving the gate," he said.
"He was further back than I've ever seen him, but that's not a bad thing because of the pace up front.
"I wasn't sure he was going to get there, but I knew he was rolling around the turn. I knew the front runners were getting slower, and I'm really proud of what he did today."
LoPresti paid tribute to Velazquez who had his spleen removed after a fall earlier in the day.
"More than anything, my heart goes out to Johnny and his family. I really wanted Johnny to ride the horse. He's done so much with him. This one's for him."
LoPresti still held out hopes of Wise Dan claiming Horse of the Year honors for the second successive year, even though they had recorded a recent loss to Silver Max.
Game on Dude, who finished ninth in the showpiece Classic later, is also a contender for the award, despite his poor run after Wise Dan had won the Mile.
"I think if he would have won the race at Keeneland, the Shadwell, we would have had a strong point," LoPresti said before the day's final feature race.
"But if Game on Dude wins today, I mean, he's undefeated. He wins the Breeders' Cup Classic, it's going to be hard to argue that Wise Dan should be Horse of the Year.
"But we'll see what happens. I think our horse is deserving to be in the running."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)