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Stronghold and jockey Antonio Fresu win the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, Saturday, April 6, 2024 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia CA. (Benoit Photo)
Stronghold and jockey Antonio Fresu win the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, Saturday, April 6, 2024 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia CA. (Benoit Photo)
Kevin Modesti, Los Angeles Daily News

ARCADIA  — Trainer Phil D’Amato calculated that Stronghold had to finish at least third in the Santa Anita Derby to earn the points needed to go to next month’s Kentucky Derby.

The colt did a lot better than that. Now he isn’t just going to Louisville, he’s going as a horse who deserves respect.

Confirming the improvement that D’Amato had been seeing in morning workouts, Stronghold used a strong ride by Antonio Fresu to battle past favorite Imagination and win the $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.

Stronghold paid $6.40. Imagination finished a neck behind, denying jockey Frankie Dettori a Santa Anita record-tying seventh winner of the day. E J Won the Cup was 3 1/4 lengths farther back in third, and longshot Curlin’s Kaos, pacesetter Tapalo, Wynstock, Mc Vay and Tessuto completed a strung-out field.

Winning a Santa Anita Derby means plenty in its own right, especially if you both own and bred the horse, as Rick and Sharon Waller did with Stronghold, a son of Ghostzapper and the couple’s mare Spectator.

“We’ve won some big races, but nothing like this,” Sharon said as they rode the elevator down to the winner’s circle after watching the Santa Anita Derby from the press box.

Winning also means you’re going to the May 4 Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown.

After other races on the final day of major Derby preps — the Blue Grass Stakes won by Sierra Leone at Keeneland and the Wood Memorial won by Resilience at Aqueduct — a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby by Stronghold would indeed have added enough qualifying points to his total to clinch a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

None of the other Santa Anita Derby runners made the Kentucky Derby. Imagination and Wynstock were ineligible for points because trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from Churchill Downs, stemming from Medina Spirit’s 2021 Derby disqualification, was extended to a third year.

The other California-based horse going to the Kentucky Derby is Endlessly, the Michael McCarthy-trained colt who won the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.

It will be the first Kentucky Derby for Fresu, D’Amato and the Wallers.

D’Amato, one of Southern California’s leading trainers, is known mostly for his success with turf-course specialists but is having no trouble getting Stronghold to peak at the right time. A win in the Sunland Derby in New Mexico put the colt on the map. Fast recent workouts put him on edge.

Saturday, Fresu placed him fourth early in the race and then bulled between Tapalo and Imagination at the top of the stretch before dueling Imagination to the wire.

“Today he proved to be a very good horse,” Fresu said.

Dettori, who won five straight races and six overall from 11 mounts on the 12-race card, said he was forced to push Imagination earlier than planned when Mike Smith moved with E J Won the Cup on the second turn.

“In the stretch I was vulnerable for a closer,” Dettori said. “When he passed me, my horse kept fighting back. We were head and head, and he was too strong for me down the line.”

Stronghold finished the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.98, covering the final eighth in 13.10. D’Amato called it an ideal setup for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve been training him exactly the way he performed this afternoon, sitting him behind (other horses), having him come get them,” D’Amato said. “That’s what you’re going to need to win big races like the Kentucky Derby, and he’s developing into that horse.”