Jockey Juan Hernandez made the most of a golden opportunity Sunday, guiding Proud Emma, the 9-2 fourth betting choice, to a victory in the $100,000 Grade III Bayakoa Stakes at Los Alamitos Race Course.

Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith was set to ride Proud Emma until he tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, Dec. 4 at Santa Anita and was forced to miss his scheduled weekend mounts, which included Saturday’s Grade I Starlet aboard Astute for trainer Richard Mandella.

Hernandez proved to be more than a capable replacement for the 55-year-old Smith, closing from fifth early on in the race for fillies and mares and outfinishing Message and jockey Flavien Prat by a half-length.

Stellar Sound, the 6-5 favorite, broke last in the six-horse field and had to settle for third, six lengths behind Message, after making an early move up the backside under Victor Espinoza.

Proud Emma, a 4-year-old daughter of Include, won for the sixth time in 16 starts and padded her career earnings to $308,658 with the first-place check of $60,000 for her first graded-stakes victory.

“We’ve been trying to get a graded stakes with her, and she finally did it for us today,” owner Tom Kagele said.

Stellar Sound was third after the first quarter-mile, but was in front by two lengths after a half-mile in 46.76 and led by a half-length after 6 furlongs in 1:11.09 before fading to third in the stretch.

Message took over from Stellar Sound and opened a half-length lead in the stretch before Hernandez and Proud Emma came charging home for the victory, running the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.40.

“(Trainer) Peter (Miller) told me to just sit behind the speed and she’d give me a strong run,” said Hernandez, who has enjoyed much success on the Southern California circuit since moving from Northern California earlier in the year.

“She relaxed perfectly, then really responded when I asked her to get by that other filly (Message).”

Proud Emma has scored all six of her victories over the dirt in 14 starts. She’s winless in two tries on the turf, including a last-place finish in the Kathryn Crosby Stakes on the grass at Del Mar on Oct. 31, and now has three victories in six tries at the Bayakoa’s distance of 1 1/16 miles.

She’d previosuly come up empty in five graded-stakes tries, most recently a fourth-place finish in the Grade II Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 27.

“She likes to sit off (the pace), and it set up very nicely for her,” Kagele said of Proud Emma’s effort in the Bayakoa. “We were confident she would come running. She shows up every time, but this was awesome.”

Kagele wasn’t sure what’s next for Proud Emma, but he’s certain of one thing.

“The plan is to keep her in training in 2021,” he said.

The 37th running of the Bayakoa, originally known as the Silver Belles Handicap when held at Hollywood Park, was run for the third time at Los Alamitos on Sunday. It was first held at Los Alamitos in 2014 and, after a two-year hiatus, run again in 2017.

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By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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