Favored Saratoga Snacks grabbed the lead turning for home and held off a late challenge from Bigger Is Bettor on Saturday afternoon to win the $250,000 Empire Classic, the centerpiece of Belmont Park's Empire Showcase Day presented by The Fund.
The 11-race card featured a number of sparkling performances, with trainer Linda Rice taking two of the seven stakes races restricted to New York-breds and undefeated filly sensation Cluster of Stars stretching her winning streak to seven.
Saratoga Snacks, who was coming off a 2 ½-month layoff, ran third through the early going as Warrioroftheroses towed the field of eight through a quarter-mile in 23.67 seconds, with the half going in 46.67. Asked for run by jockey Joel Rosario rounding the turn, the 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat swept three-wide to the front and straightened for home with a one-length lead. Challenged through the final furlong by Bigger Is Bettor, Saratoga Snacks dug in and hit the wire three-quarters of a length in front.
His time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48.79.
Unraced since August 1 and with only two starts this year, Saratoga Snacks' fitness level was a concern for trainer Gary Sciacca and his owner, NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.
"I told Bill he was doing even better now than he was last year," said Sciacca. "Once I put the glue-on shoes on the horse it made all the difference in the world. He started doing good. Joel [Rosario] came out and worked him the other morning in 1:12 4/5. He worked good and galloped out strong. I said, 'Well, if he wasn't fit, that'll get him right there.' When they turned for home, I never screamed like I screamed today."
Sciacca said Parcells, who watched the race from Florida, was "thrilled."
Sent off as the 3-2 favorite, Saratoga Snacks returned $5 for a $2 win bet and earned $150,000, boosting his bankroll to $464,600. This year, in addition to the Empire Classic, the ridgling won the Shy Groom in June at Belmont and finished third as the favorite in the John Morrissey at Saratoga Race Course. Overall, he is 7-2-1 from 10 starts.
Miss Narcissist kicked off Empire Showcase Day in spectacular fashion with a sharp, front-running score over favored Court Dancer in the $150,000 Joseph A. Gimma for 2-year-old fillies.
Trained by Linda Rice and ridden by Junior Alvarado, the speedy daughter of Freud broke best and angled to the inside, leading the field through soft fractions of 23.11 seconds for a quarter-mile, and 46.31 for a half. Turning for home, Miss Narcissist spurted away from the field when given her cue, and continued to gain separation throughout the stretch to win by 5 ¼ lengths, completing the seven furlongs in 1:23.82.
The bay filly, owned by Acqua Nova Stable, Winter Park Partners and Rice, had been something of a problem child but showed a newfound professionalism in coming off a two-month layoff.
"She was very, very fractious in the paddock and behind the gates the first time I ran her, but she had trained brilliantly," said Rice. "The second time she won, but she still ran very greenly. We took the next two months to get her to settle in and teach her to switch her leads. She's been a project, and the gap from her maiden race to this race was two months, but it gave us enough to really work with her."
Miss Narcissist now owns two victories in three tries with earnings of $134,100. Sent off at 5-1, she returned $12.20 for a $2 win bet.
Favored Wired Bryan made quick work of his six rivals in the $150,000 Bertram F. Bongard for 2-year-olds, grabbing the lead out of the gate and never looking back as he cruised to a three-length victory over Empire Dreams.
Reunited with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who was aboard the 2-year-old Stormy Atlantic colt for his maiden victory on June 19 at Belmont, Wired Bryan was away quickly and rolled through an uncontested quarter-mile in 22.86 seconds and a half in 45.79. He swung into the stretch clear by four lengths, widened that advantage to nearly six approaching the eighth pole and was never challenged as he crossed under the wire in 1:22.83 for seven furlongs.
"Johnny has ridden the horse, he's won on him, he's ridden against him and beaten him, he's been beaten by him - he's seen him from every angle," said Michael Dilger, who trains Wired Bryan for Anstu Stables. "I told him to do whatever he thought was best. The horse is always going to break sharp, it was just a matter of whether someone else wanted the lead or not."
Sent off at 3-10. Wired Bryan returned $2.60 for a $2 win bet as he extended his record to 4-1-0 from six starts, including victories in the Grade 2 Sanford at Saratoga Race Course and the New York Breeders' Futurity at Finger Lakes. Overall, he has earned $537,474.
Unbeaten Cluster of Stars shined brightly in the $150,000 Iroquois for filly and mare sprinters, setting the pace and needing no urging from jockey Javier Castellano to defeat last year's winner, Willet, by 3 ¼ lengths.
"She's very competitive, very intelligent; I'm just the pilot," said Castellano. "I like to enjoy the ride. She's very professional and did everything the right way."
Cluster of Stars, who completed seven furlongs in 1:21.87 and returned $2.30 as the 1-10 favorite, has now won all seven of her starts and four stakes, including the Grade 2 Distaff Handicap in April at Aqueduct Racetrack and the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap on September 21 at Belmont. Owned by Harvey Weinstein's Turtle Bird Stable, she has earned $549,000 to date.
"She likes to bring it," said Toby Sheets, assistant to winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "The seven furlongs didn't bother me - the fact we would be the target did bother me a little bit. [Here's Zealicious] had speed, but she scratched, so that helped us a little. [Cluster of Stars] is just all that, and then some."
Sheets did not specify Cluster of Stars' next objective.
"We're going to enjoy this," said Sheets. "One race at a time. There are a couple of things we can do. We'll see how she comes out and go from there."
Despite a few anxious moments in early stretch, Effie Trinket was guided to victory by an unflappable Luis Saez for owner Patsy Symons in the $200,000 Ticonderoga, run at 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf.
Trained by Rick Violette, the 3-year-old daughter of Freud settled nicely behind the tepid pace set by Jose Lezcano aboard Harbor Mist. As the tempo quickened entering the stretch, racing room was nowhere to be found, but the ever-patient Saez kept his filly toward the inside, within striking range. When a seam finally presented itself, she was able to squeak through it and out-duel a game Sally's Dream to the wire, prevailing by a nose.
"I knew I had horse but I didn't have room," said Saez. "I had to wait and wait, and when I saw Rajiv [Maragh] on my outside [aboard Sally's Dream] I thought he was going to beat me, but when I changed my whip to the left hand she responded; she loved it. I knew she won [the photo]."
Violette also seemed taken with his filly's courageous performance, offering a rhetorical "How game is she?" after the race.
"She can do anything; she has won on the lead, she has won stalking, she's made one big run to get it," the trainer said. "Here she kind of stalked and had to wait; everyone was packing her in. She just battled back and put a nose in front. It was very, very cool."
Effie Trinket completed the distance in 1:42.45 and paid $9.40 to win.
Palace continued his upward trajectory by making a late surge to overtake Moonlight Song and register a 1 ¼-length triumph in the $150,000 Hudson, a six-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up.
Claimed for $20,000 by trainer Linda Rice for owner Antonino Miuccio a year ago, Palace was unhurried as he departed from the rail, settling in fourth behind an opening quarter-mile in 22.41 seconds. He came off the rail to commence his rally approaching the three-sixteenths pole, then made a relentless charge to propel himself to the front in the final 50 yards.
"Jose [Ortiz aboard Moonlight Song] had a lot of horse in the stretch, but my horse ran hard the last part of the race," said winning jockey Cornelio Velasquez. "I had the best horse in the race. He's a very good horse and I had a lot of confidence."
Off as the 2-1 favorite, Palace returned $6 and completed the distance in 1:08.97.
Palace, a 4-year-old son of City Zip, has now won three of his past four starts and entered the Hudson off a three-length score in the Chowder's First overnight stakes on August 23 at Saratoga Race Course.
Overall, Palace is 7-2-2 in 13 starts. He has earned $352,050, including $90,000 for his Hudson victory.
"He trained so well last fall," said Rice. "He really flourished over the winter. I trained his father, and [City Zip] was a special horse. I thought I could see the same things in [Palace]. He bled through Lasix on me. I turned him out for a couple of months, and when I brought him back he was just taking a little longer to get back into shape than I thought [he would]. He was a little heavier than anticipated, but I just knew there was something special under the hood, and he shows it each time."
Favored King Kreesa showed a new dimension in the $200,000 Mohawk, coming from off the pace to take the lead at the top of the stretch and go on to a 1 ¼-length victory over Lubash.
Running second behind Abilio, who led the field of 11 through a quarter mile in 23.28 seconds and a half in 46.34 over the firm Widener turf course, King Kreesa launched his bid approaching the quarter-pole and struck the lead turning for home. Edging clear through the stretch, he crossed under the wire in 1:39.26 for 1 1/16 miles.
The victory was the third in seven starts this year for the normally front-running son of King Cugat, who was coming off a seventh-place finish in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational. Earlier this year at Belmont, the 4-year-old gelding won the Grade 3 Poker and the Kingston for New York-breds.
"The distance was too far for him last time," said winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. "He relaxed pretty good today. He ran like he was in front."
Sent off at 2-1, King Kreesa returned $6.20 for a $2 win bet as he extended his lifetime record to 6-4-2 from 17 starts. Overall, he has earned $657,370 for his owners, Gerald and Susan Kresa.