Anstu Stables' homebred 5-year-old gelding Balto Star went gate-to-wire to win the $200,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap (gr. IIT) by 1 1/2 lengths over Continuously at Calder on Saturday.
The victory pushes his lifetime earnings to $1,952,946. Jockey John Velazquez rode favored Balto Star for trainer Todd Pletcher.
A confirmed front-runner, Balto Star immediately took the lead in the 1 ½ miles turf race and carved out workmanlike fractions (:24 1/5, :48 4/5, 1:13 3/5, 1:37 2/5, and 2:01) while holding enough in reserve to respond to pressure from the closers Continuously and Rowans Park in the stretch. Continuously, winner of the Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IT) by disqualification in his last race, was a half-length better than Rowans Park in the 11-horse field.
"I tried to slow it down the first part of the race," Velazquez said of his winning strategy. "He gets brave, he gets a big heart when he gets loose on the lead like that. When we turned for home, he was already running and it was too late (for anybody else)."
Winner of the Red Smith Handicap (gr. IIT) at Aqueduct in his last start, the Glitterman gelding was making his first appearance at Calder in the track's signature turf race for the Tropical meet. Balto Star covered the distance in 2:24 4/5, just four-fifths of a second off the course record set by Flag Down in the 1995 McKnight Handicap.
Balto Star won for the fourth time in 13 starts this year while lugging top weight of 121 pounds. He improved to 11-6-2 in 33 career outings while earning $120,000 for his owners.
"When we bred this horse, we thought we would get an unusual horse from an unraced mare, by Glitterman, but never imagined he would be able to go long and on turf, said owner/breeder Stuart Subotnick. "He's done everything. He beat Mineshaft on the main track early this year, but he's done so well since then going long on turf, firm and soft. I think we'll keep him doing that for now at Gulfstream. I think there is something with his psychology that if he gets to a certain point in a race he will go on and win from there. If things aren't going his way, I think he protects himself."
Sent off as the 2-to-1 favorite, he paid $6.60, 3.80, 3.20. Continuously returned $3.80 and 3.00, while Rowans Park paid $4.40 to show.
Sir Brian's Sword was fourth, followed by Prodigus, Thompson Rouge, Cetewayo, Runaway Dancer, Father Bryan's Gem, Final Prophecy and Art Variety. In Hand, Macaw and Gran Cesare were scratched.