The only graded stakes winner in Saturday's $500,000 Jim Dandy (gr. II), budding Flower Alley outclassed his 3-year-old foes at Saratoga Race Course to establish himself as one of the favorites for the upcoming Travers (gr. I).
Jockey John Velazquez swept the two $500,000 races on the Saratoga card Saturday after his front-running victory earlier aboard Sand Springs in the Diana Handicap (gr. I).
With Afleet Alex out of action perhaps for the rest of the year, the Todd Pletcher-trained Flower Alley moves to the head of the 3-year-old class in the East. The Lane's End (gr. II) winner was a distant second to Alex in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) before finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Given a couple of months off, the chestnut son of Distorted Humor
returned with a game second-place finish to Roman Ruler in the one-turn Dwyer (gr. II) at Belmont Park July 4.
But Pletcher says it's too soon to hang a star label on Flower Alley.
"Physically, he's done very well," said Pletcher, who has teamed with Velazquez to win the Jim Dandy the past three years. "Mentally, he's still getting there. You could see (that) once he made the lead, he let up a little bit. When Johnny hit him right-handed, he ducked over onto his left lead. It will come to him. Right now, he is doing this on natural talent."
The $1 million Travers at 10 furlongs is Aug. 27 at Saratoga.
The 1-2 choice in the five-horse field, Flower Alley romped by 5 1/4 lengths over Reverberate, who was turned back conclusively in the 1 1/8-mile event after making a run at the winner in the stretch for jockey Jose Santos. Andromeda's Hero, Rafael Bejarano aboard, closed ground from far back but flattened out in the lane to finish a distant third, nearly 12 lengths behind the winner. The final time on a fast track was a rather pedestrian 1:49 2/5.
Noble Causeway was scratched at the gate when jockey Jerry Bailey said the Nick Zito-trained colt wasn't warming up well.
The winner broke well and tracked a close second to Mr. Congeniality through early fractions of :23 4/5 and :47 1/5 before assuming the lead after six furlongs in 1:11 4/5. After a brief challenge from Reverberate, Flower Alley opened up by about 2 1/2 lengths with a furlong to go and finished well.
Velazquez said he wanted to help Flower Alley's racing education.
"Today, I surprised him. He thought I was going to be waiting for the group, but I picked him up and made him do something. I was real happy with his response."
Owned by Melnyk Racing Stables, Inc., Flower Alley earned $300,000 for his third win in seven career starts. His bankroll stands at $851,660. It was the second Jim Dandy win in three years for Eugene Melnyk, who won in 2003 with Strong Hope.
"I think the plan worked out the way we hoped it would," said Pletcher. "We decided after the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) to freshen this horse. We kicked around the Preakness (gr. I) and the Belmont (gr. I), but we just thought that he had come so far so fast, that the right thing to do was back away. We circled the program that would culminate in the Travers. With the Jim Dandy four weeks before the Travers that plays into our favor."
George Brunacini and Bona Terra Farms bred Flower Alley, who was produced by the Lycius
mare Princess Olivia, in Kentucky.
Flower Alley paid $3, $2.40, and $2.10. Reverberate rebounded from a disastrous effort in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to return $3.70 and $2.10.
"(Reverberate) ran a much better race than he ran in the Belmont. His race here was probably just as good, if not better than the Peter Pan (when second)," Russo said. "Of course, I'm disappointed that we didn't win. I really thought we had a chance to catch Todd's horse, but the best we could do was second. We are definitely Travers-bound off this race."
Andromeda's Hero's show was $2.10 as Zito's disappointing season with a highly touted group of 3-year-olds continues.
Zito was not happy with the scratch of Noble Causeway, who ran sixth in the Preakness in his last start.
"Bailey didn't like the horse," Zito said of Noble Causeway. "The vet didn't have any problem with him, but Bailey didn't like the way he was warming up. (Noble Causeway) walked back perfect.
"Andromeda's Hero looked good. The next race (Travers) is a mile and a quarter, and that will suit him better. I'm very disappointed that I didn't get to see Noble Causeway run."
King of Jazz and Mr. Congeniality trailed.