ARCADIA, Calif. (Feb. 19, 2011) – Saturday’s Grade II, $150,000 San Luis Obispo Stakes at Santa Anita had been billed strictly as a duel between the West Coast’s foremost grass marathoners, Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus, and was it ever.

The 1 ½-mile competition simply could not have been any closer or more dramatic. After the two battled in tandem through the final eighth-of-a-mile, Champ Pegasus emerged victorious by the bob of a head.

“They are both very good horses,” said winning jockey Joel Rosario. “You saw how the race came out. I only beat him by this much,” as Rosario held his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “I thought I got in front of him a couple of times,” added Rosario, “but he came back again.” The final time was 2:31.55.

Rosario later gained his second stakes win of the afternoon, this time by a head, as he rallied 7-5 choice Smiling Tiger to victory in the 73rd running of the Grade II, $150,000 San Carlos Handicap at seven furlongs. Smiling Tiger, who relinquished his distinction as the West Coast’s top sprinter when upset in last month’s Grade II Palos Verdes, regained such esteem with Rosario at the controls for the first time.

The 4-year-old colt, trained by Jeff Bonde, bobbled at the start, but overtook Captain Cherokee in the closing strides while covering seven furlongs in 1:20.30. Prior to the race, the track condition had been upgraded from “good” to “wet fast.”

With a 6-1-6 record in 13 career races, Smiling Tiger continued to demonstrate his consistency despite the troubled third in the Palos Verdes. Rosario, meantime, achieved his eleventh stakes win of the meet to extend his edge over leading rider Rafael Bejarano to four.

The San Luis Obispo victory by 3-2 second choice Champ Pegasus gave him a very slim 2-1 edge in their competitions and handed 11-10 favorite Bourbon Bay his first setback in six starts over Santa Anita’s Camino Real Turf Course. He had won last year’s San Luis Obispo by 4 ¼ lengths.

“I don’t think he liked the soft turf,” Neil Drysdale, who trains Bourbon Bay, said afterward. Bourbon Bay, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, finished 3 ¼ lengths ahead of third-place Haimish Hy. Following overnight rain, the 55th San Luis Obispo was raced over a turf course labeled “good.” There were four late defections from the original field of 13.

Unbridle’s Dream, who would fade to last, took a long early lead in the marathon. Bourbon Bay pursued in a distant second. Champ Pegasus steadied while racing into the first turn, but straightened away while alternating between fourth and fifth position. He pulled alongside Bourbon Bay in midstretch and their tense battle ensued with neither 5-year-old giving ground.

The outcome meant revenge for Champ Pegasus. He had been victorious in their first meeting last Oct. 3 when taking Oak Tree’s Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Hollywood Park. Third place Bourbon Bay was beaten by one length after returning from a five-month layoff.

David and Jill Heerensperger’s gelding turned the tables in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Marcos Stakes at 1 ¼ miles on Jan. 17 while scoring by 1 3/4 lengths. Runner-up Champ Pegasus had been idle for nearly 2 ½ months following a sharp runner-up effort to Dangerous Midge in the Grade I, $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6.

“My horse definitely needed his last race,” said Richard Mandella, who trains Champ Pegasus. “I didn’t have him as fit as I thought I did, and I had underestimated how good Bourbon Bay was, and he is very good.”

With the winning purse of $90,000, Champ Pegasus became a millionaire in his 11th career start for owners and breeders Gerald Ford, of Dallas, who races as Diamond A Racing Corp., and Arturo Vargas of Buenos Aires. His career earnings rose to $1,018,520 from a record of 5-4-1.

Champ Pegasus paid $5, $2.40 and $2.40. In further testimony to their parity, the place and show payoffs on Bourbon Bay were the same as those of the winner. Haimish Hy, ridden by Garrett Gomez, paid $3.60 to show.

Northern California-based Russell Baze had ridden Smiling Tiger in his four previous starts with a pair of thirds and a second following a victory in the Grade I Ancient Title Stakes at Hollywood Park in October. “Russell has done a good job, but it’s tough to get down here,” Bonde had said when making the rider change. “And it was a last-minute decision to run in this race,” he added.

In the San Carlos Handicap winner’s circle, Bonde said, “The guy (Rosario) rode a professional race. He did what he had to do. When the situation arose, the horse responded to him. There’s not much to say.”

Rosario admitted afterward that the victory did not come according to instruction. “He (trainer Bonde) told me to send him,” said Rosario, “but he stumbled leaving the gate, so I let him settle and relax. He’s a nice horse, a classy horse. He showed today that he can relax and that he can run from off the pace.”

Smiling Tiger was shuffled back to last among six starters after leaving the gate. Ventana set the early pace while tracked by Captain Cherokee with Joe Talamo aboard. The latter gained the lead in deep stretch before being run down by Smiling Tiger. Captain Cherokee had to survive a stewards’ inquiry after drifting out from the whip nearing the wire. He finished three-quarters of a length ahead of third-place Mythical Power with Bejarano aloft.

Owned by Alan Klein and Phil Lebherz, Smiling Tiger, a Kentucky-bred son of Hold That Tiger, added $90,000 in earnings which brought his 13-race total to $875,864. He paid $4.80, $3.20 and $2.60. Captain Cherokee paid $6 and $3.40. The show payoff on Mythical Power was $3.20.

The Presidents’ Day weekend of racing through Monday continues on Sunday with a nine-race program featuring the Grade II San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. Trainer Bob Baffert’s spectacular maiden-race winner The Factor is the 8-5 favorite among nine 3-year-olds entered in the prep for the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Derby April 9. First post is at 12:30 p.m.