DEL MAR, Calif. -- With about a half-mile remaining in Sunday's Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, Big Score, Sharp Samurai and Bowies Hero -- the three main contenders - were within a little more than a length of each other.
The tactical race that had been easy to envision was at hand.
Gary Stevens, riding Sharp Samurai, was last of those three on the backstretch, and turned out to be in the perfect spot. Stevens followed Tiago Pereira on Bowies Hero on the turn and went by that rival and other runners to take the lead in early stretch. Flavien Prat, on Big Score, raced in traffic to the inside of Sharp Samurai and had a tougher trip.
Stevens's move turned out to be the difference. Sharp Samurai, the 2-1 favorite, held off a late rally from 3-1 Big Score to win the $251,725 Del Mar Derby by a half-length. Bowies Hero, also 3-1, held on for third, beaten a length.
"On paper, it was tactical," Stevens said. "I could tell Tiago didn't have as much as I thought. I wanted to get first run.
"I didn't want to be second and have them come after me. I wanted to be the hunter."
The win confirmed Sharp Samurai's status as the leading 3-year-old turf runner in California. The gelding won the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap on Aug. 6, a prep for the Del Mar Derby.
Sharp Samurai ran 1 1/8 miles on turf in 1:48.03.
"I thought he was well-placed early, in the clear, which is where we wanted to be," trainer and co-owner Mark Glatt said. "We didn't think they'd be going very fast and when they don't go fast they have a tendency to bunch.
"Gary rode him perfectly, pushed the button exactly when he needed to and the horse responded."
Big Score closed from fifth in the final furlong.
"We didn't get the trip," said Tim Yakteen, who trains Big Score. "If we'd have gotten the trip, it would have been different. The horse ran a big race."
Bowies Hero was followed in the order of finish by Colonist, Fashion Business, Ritzy A.P., Double Touch, Monster Man, Marckie's Water, and Harbour Master.
Sharp Samurai, a gelding by First Samurai, is owned by Red Baron's Barn, Rancho Temescal and Glatt. Sharp Samurai, who has won 5 of 8 starts and earned $345,870, began his career on dirt, but has won four of five starts on turf since being switched to grass in the spring.
Before Sunday's race, Glatt mentioned the Grade 2 Twilight Derby on turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 28 as an early autumn goal for Sharp Samurai.
The Del Mar Derby win could be the start of a memorable 48 hours for Red Baron's Barn and Rancho Temescal. They have top contender Tatters to Riches in Monday's Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity with trainer Jeff Mullins.