After coming close before, Jesus Avila and Jesus Cuevas’ Last To Fire is now a Grade 1 stakes winner following an impressive half-length victory over graded stakes winner Jess Featureme Quick in the $167,900 Vessels Maturity on Sunday at Los Alamitos.
The Vessels Maturity win earned Last To Fire the third automatic starting berth to the $750,000 Champion of Champions to be held at Los Alamitos on Saturday, December 14. Last To Fire joins defending Champion of Champions winner Rylees Boy, who earned his berth by winning the Los Alamitos Winter Championship, and Remington Park Invitational Championship winner Priceless Feature in this year’s Champion of Champions field.
Ridden by Francisco Rubio for trainer Jose De La Torre, the 4-year-old Last To Fire broke sharply from post number and from there he got strong with each passing stride. The gelding by Walk Thru Fire moved ahead of the quick breaking Bills Last at around the 100-yard mark and he maintained his half-length lead from there on the way to covering the 400 yards in the meet’s fastest time of :19.346. The richest horse in the Vessels Maturity field, Last To Fire earned $70,518 for this victory to take his lifetime earnings to $662,545. The victory was not only his first Grade 1 victory, but his first stakes win of any type. Bred by the Estate of Spencer Childers, the brown gelding had been close in several big races before. He was second in the 2011 running of the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity and third in that year’s Golden State Million Futurity. He also finished third in last year’s Southern California Derby and fourth in this year’s Los Alamitos Winter Championship. All of those races were Grade 1 events, as were the Los Alamitos Super Derby and Golden State Derby in which he also participated in last year.
“After such a long time of trying to win one, this feels great,” said Jesus Avila. “The important thing about this win is what’s coming up for this horse in the future. This win has opened up a door for this horse to run in the Champion of Champions.”
“My heart is going at 100 miles per hour right now,” said Avila’s son, Jose. “Our goal since he was three was to qualify him to the Champion of Champions. We’re so thankful to now have this opportunity. He tends to lug in during his races, but since he was breaking from post number one he had the rail to go to. That’s what he did. He went straight to the rail and because of that reason we liked (his starting) spot. He flew out of the gate.”
Now a winner of six of 17 career starts, this was his first non-trial race victory, Last To Fire’s five previous wins had all come in stakes trial races.
“He’ll be tough in the Champion of Champions,” De La Torre added. “When he runs fresh he’s very tough. He’s been knocking on the door since he was a 2-year-old to win a Grade 1 race. We’re glad he finally did it. He’s an outstanding horse and he’s shown that over the years. This horse came out of the Winter Championship with a quarter crack,” the trainer added. “He hit himself in that race and he (struggled) for about three weeks after that. Horseshoer David Vargas worked on this horse and he did an awesome job.”
Last To Fire won his Vessels Maturity trial by 1 ¼ lengths while earning the second fastest qualifying time of :19.47. Eduardo Nicasio piloted him in the trials, but he also rode fastest qualifier Deniro. When Nicasio stuck with Deniro for the Vessels final, Last To Fire reunited by Rubio, who had ridden him before in the Winter Championship and Southern California Derby.
“He was strong tonight,” said the jockey. “I felt like he was on the lead the entire time. The longer the race went the easier he felt.”
Melissa Miller’s homebred Jess Featureme Quick earned $28,543 for his second straight second place finish to Last To Fire, as the pair also met in the Vessels trials on June 16 when Jess Featureme Quick was making his Los Alamitos debut. Now a lifetime winner of $474,199, the gelding by Feature Mr Jess arrived at Los Alamitos with an impressive resume that included a win in the Hobbs America Derby, second place finishes in The Championship at Sunland Park and the Bank of America Sunland Park Challenge Championship and third place finishes in the Zia Park Championship and All American Derby. Ramon Sanchez piloted Jess Featureme Quick for trainer Paul Jones.
“He ran a good race,” Jones said. “I think at 440 yards he would have been in good shape. He was going strong at the end and it looked like he just ran out of racetrack.”
Jones also saddled Paul Blanchard’s Bills Last, who earned $20,148 for running third. Ridden by Eddie Garcia, Bills Last crossed the wire a half-length ahead of Deniro. Bills Last ran second in the Winter Championship earlier this year and was also third in the Kaweah Bar Handicap.
Deniro, who was the even money favorite, was bumped start and was steadied late in the race.
“He should have run third, but horses came across him on both sides,” De La Torre said. “He was coming off of a big layoff for the trials. We operated on the horse and in his first race back he did awesome. He’s a wonderful horse and he’ll come back. He’s in the Challenge and there are other big races later in the year.”
Owned by Shane O’Leary, Deniro earned $11,753 for running fourth. The Desirio gelding, who won the Los Alamitos Super Derby and finished fifth in the Champion of Champions last year, has now earned $504,196 in his 15-race career. Jose Luis Martinez’s Perfect Place finished fifth and was followed across the wire by Queens R Blue, Hit It Big, PK Fire, Chicks Boudro and Gone With A Win.
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