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Lunar Victory Shines in Empire Classic

Odds-on favorite Lunar Victory outkicked a game Saratoga Snacks in a dramatic stretch duel and hit the wire 1 ¼ lengths in front to take Saturday’s $250,000 Empire Classic, the centerpiece of New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park.

 

Carrying the colors of Juddmonte Farms – which earlier in the day at Ascot Racecourse saw its homebred Frankel close out his career with a perfect 14-for-14 record – Lunar Victory raced in midpack as Saratoga Snacks carried the field of eight New York-breds through an opening half mile in 46.61 seconds. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown drew alongside the pacesetter on the turn and the two straightened for home in tandem, with Lunar Victory prevailing after a spirited tussle to the final sixteenth.

 

“[Lunar Victory] broke really good and then I just tried to settle him down and relax because I knew there would be a little speed in the race,” said winning jockey Junior Alvarado. “He has so much class, though, turning for home I just tried to stay away from [Saratoga Snacks] and he gave me a nice kick at the end.”

 

Lunar Victory’s time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:49.70 over the “good” main track as he extended his American record to 6-2-0 in eight starts for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who earned his first victory in the race, one of seven stakes on the card for New York-breds.

 

“[Juddmonte] is still celebrating Frankel, I believe,” said Mott with a smile. “You know what, they pay attention to all of them, so I’m sure they’re happy to have this one.”

 

The 4-5 favorite, Lunar Victory returned $3.60 for a $2 win bet to his backers in the crowd of 7,095, and extended his career record to 7-4-2 from 16 starts.

 

The 3-year-old Saratoga Snacks, who saw his four-race win streak for owner Bill Parcells come to an end, finished 6 ½ lengths ahead of Sailmate, who was followed home by Johannesburg Smile, Fiddlers Afleet, Bigger Is Bettor, Haldane, and Saxophone Len.

 

Willet opened the day’s stakes menu with an 8-1 upset of the $150,000 Iroquois for fillies and mares, powering through the middle of the stretch and going on to a 9 ¼-length victory over Miss Valentine.

 

Reserved in fifth by jockey Rajiv Maragh as 3-2 favorite Agave Kiss led the field through opening fractions of 22.63 and 45.59, Willet kicked into high gear when given her cue at the top of the stretch and cruised under the wire in 1:23.28 for the seven furlongs over the muddy track, later upgraded to good.

 

“In the early part of the race I was a little worried because it seemed like she wasn’t quite getting hold of the track, but in the end she just took off,” said Maragh of  the 4-year-old Willet, who returned $19.20 for a $2 win bet as she earned her first victory in three starts this year.

 

Trainer Jimmy Iselin, who co-owns the Jump Start filly with Charlotte Assoulin and Eli Gindi, said Willet most likely will make her next start in the Grade 2, one-mile Go for Wand Handicap on November 23 at Aqueduct Racetrack.

 

In the first of two featured juvenile races, even-money favorite Weekend Hideaway earned his second stakes victory, taking command at the top of the stretch and going on to a 2 ½-length win over longshot pacesetter Saint Arthur and 12 others in the $125,000 Bertram F. Bongard.

 

Ridden by Jose Lezcano, the Speightstown colt stayed right behind Saint Arthur through opening fractions of 22.41 and 46.12 seconds. Engaging the front-runner on the turn, Weekend Hideaway poked a nose in front straightening for home and was never challenged as he hit the wire in 1:24.59 for the seven furlongs.

 

The victory was the third in five starts for Weekend Hideaway, who was bred by Flying Zee Stables and carries the colors of Red and Black Stable. He returned $4.10 for a $2 win wager.

 

“This has a lot of meaning to me more than just winning this race because [the late Carl Lizza of Flying Zee Stables and I] bred all these horses,” said winning trainer Phil Serpe. “Fortunately, Mike Hoffman of Red and Black Stable stepped up and bought four of the yearlings [at the dispersal sale]. This is one of them.”

 

Mine Over Matter, eighth in the 2011 Empire Classic, found the $150,000 Hudson more to his liking as he rallied from midpack to take the six-furlong race by a length, giving jockey Ramon Dominguez his first of three stakes wins on the day.

 

Racing behind cover on the far turn, Mine Over Matter found a seam in upper stretch and quickened when asked, edging past 3-5 favorite Saginaw, who held second by a neck over Shrewd One.

 

“Initially I was laying a little bit closer than what I was envisioning,” said Dominguez. “I thought they would have run away from me a little bit more, but I was happy with the fact that he was relaxed where he was. Around the three-eighths pole, when I had to ask him a little bit to save my spot, he jumped onto the bridle. Right then and there I realized that I had a lot of horse, and sure enough when I angled out turning for home he finished up pretty nicely.”

 

Mine Over Matter, a Chester and Mary Broman homebred trained by Mike Hushion, returned $15 as the 6-1 third choice and completed the distance in 1:10.20.

 

Focusing on sprint races this year, Mine Over Matter won the Fabersham in April at Aqueduct and had twice finished third to Saginaw in a pair of New York-bred stakes. The 5-year-old entered the Hudson off a fourth in the Clever Electrician on August 26 at Saratoga. In seven starts this year, he is 2-1-2.

 

Heavily favored Hessonite successfully defended her title in the $175,000 Ticonderoga, splitting rivals with a furlong to go and going on to a 3 ¾-length victory over Shakeira in the 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares over a yielding turf course.

 

Ridden by Dominguez, the 4-year-old Freud filly ran seventh as Wholelottashakin towed the field of 12 fillies and mares through a half mile in 49.61 and three quarters in 1:15.80. Behind a wall of horses turning for home, Hessonite found room between rivals with a furlong to go and quickly pulled clear for her fourth win in her past five starts.

 

“I felt that one way or another, I was confident she would find a way through, and she did,” said Dominguez of Hessonite, who carries the colors of William Punk, Jr. and Philip DiLeo. “Honest to God – and I’m not just saying this because she won the race, I’ve been saying it for a while – she’s one of my all-time favorite horses to ride.”

 

The 2-5 favorite, Hessonite returned $2.70 for a $2 win bet as she extended her 2012 record to 4-2-0 from eight starts, including victories in the John Hettinger, Yaddo and Irish Linnet stakes.

 

“What can I say? A really nice filly,” said winning trainer David Donk. “I had a lot of confidence in Ramon … they’re a great team.”

 

Overlooked at 10-1, Merrylegs Farm’s Matchmadeinheaven ran her record to 3-for-3 with a come-from-behind victory over 11 other juvenile fillies in the $125,000 Joseph A. Gimma.

 

Running in the back of the pack through an opening quarter mile in 23.31 and a half in 47.81, the homebred daughter of Utopia found her best stride when taken to the outside approaching the quarter pole. With an explosive burst of speed, she outsprinted the late-closing Agilion through the final yards and hit the wire three-quarters of a length in front.

 

Her time for the seven furlong was 1:26.34.

 

“She’s still a baby, and every horse that came to her she was backing up, backing up,” said jockey Jose Lezcano of Matchmadeinheaven, who returned $23.60 for a $2 win bet. “When I got to the quarter pole, I swung out and she took off like she was breaking from the gate. She’s a very nice filly and she’ll get better with more racing.”

 

Dominguez completed the hat trick in the afternoon’s final race, guiding Unbridled Command through an opening along the rail on the turn and onto a 6 ¾-length victory in the $175,000 McMahon of Saratoga Mohawk.

 

Trained by Tom Bush for Lakland farm, the 3-year-old Unbridled Command was off alertly and settled readily behind Karakorum Legend, who was prompted by Strong Impact through fractions of 25.16 and 50.91 over the yielding turf course. Asked for run by Dominguez approaching the quarter pole, Unbridled Command slipped inside the top two to emerge with the lead at the top of the stretch and steadily widened his advantage to the wire.

 

He completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:47.02.

 

“He was just floating on top of the soft ground,” said Dominguez of the gray colt. “He didn’t mind it at all. When he saw an opening on the rail, he didn’t hesitate at all.”

 

It was the fourth straight victory for the Master Command colt, who had earned his first stakes win against open company in the Grade 3 Saranac on September 2 at Saratoga Race Course. Overall, he is 5-1-2 from nine starts in 2012.

 

“If he’s healthy and nothing’s amiss, we haven’t ruled out running him in the Hollywood Derby [Grade 1, November 25],” said Bush of Unbridled Command, who returned $7.,30 as the 5-2 second choice in the field of nine. “He’s just a horse that continues to move forward, and it’s exciting.”

 

 

 

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