Front-running Balto Star and jockey John Velazquez took advantage of his deliberate pace to spurt away in the stretch en route to an easy 3 1/4-length victory in Saturday's $150,000 Red Smith Handicap (gr. IIT) over soft going on the Aqueduct turf.
In a victory reminiscent of his grade I triumph this summer in the United Nations Handicap at Monmouth, the Todd Pletcher-trained 5-year-old Glitterman gelding, carrying top weight of 120 pounds, assumed the lead soon after leaving the starting gate and dictated the going throughout. He finished in a time of 2:18 4/5 for the 1 3/8-mile test. Favored Macaw came along late to edge 9-year-old Cetewayo for second by a neck.
"I was surprised that he handled the ground so well," Velazquez said. "We haven't run on the turf in a few days and they probably packed it down and it was pretty tight for this race. He was galloping out there."
Anstu Stable's homebred Balto Star was coming off a last-place finish, beaten by 24 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Santa Anita last month. The victory was his first since the United Nations and his third in 12 starts in 2003.
"We were a little bit worried about a couple of things," Pletcher said. "One, running back after the Breeders' Cup was a concern shipping to and from the West Coast. The one thing we concluded out of that race was that he really didn't have a hard race. He's one of those in-and-out horses. When things are right he can fire huge and when things aren't right, he'll throw in a clunker.
"(Second), when it was raining so much, we had some concern about what the ground would be like, but I talked to (owner) Mr. Subotnick and he was keen on running. We decided to enter him, take a look and buy 48 more hours to see what the weather did. Ever since we entered, the weather couldn't have been better."
Balto Star got an ideal set of circumstances Saturday at Aqueduct, where he was making his first appearance in 32 career starts.
Quiet Ruler popped the gate to lead coming out of the chute before settling back in third place. Balto Star soon assumed control with Tripat tracking easily through a :24 3/5 opening quarter and :49 3/5 for the half-mile. After completing six furlongs in a leisurely 1:15 and a mile in 1:39 3/5 it was obvious Balto Star was going to be tough to catch.
Roused by Velazquez at the top of the lane, Balto Star had built an insurmountable eight-length advantage by mid-stretch. Macaw, on the far outside, and Cetewayo, both far back through the opening mile, came on in the stretch to pick up the pieces while gaining mildy on Balto Star.
The dark bay improved his career line to 10-6-2 with earnings of $1,832,946. He has won four of 12 career starts on the grass with more than $800,000 earned on the sod.
The 9-2 fourth choice in the 11-horse field paid $11.80, $5.90 and $3.50. Macaw, the 2-1 choice for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, returned $3.90 and $2.70. Cetewayo, Jose Santos aboard, showed for $3.10. The $2 exacta was worth $46.
"He didn't even break today," Bridgmohan said about Macaw. "He kind of flopped out of there with no enthusiasm. He wasn't into it the first part. Today I had to ride him the whole way. He grinded that out all on guts. He just wasn't handling the conditions that well. At the top of the stretch, I thought if I wheeled him out and got him some good ground, maybe he'd grind it out, which he did. I didn't think he was going to get anything."
Pletcher said the Balto Star might run next in the $200,000 W.L. McKnight (gr. IIT) at 1 ½ miles on turf at Calder on Dec. 27.
Final Prophecy, Haggs Castle, Deputy Strike, Revved Up, He Flies, Dawn of the Condor, Quiet Ruler and Tipat completed the order of finish. Peekskill, Private Lap, Royal Regalia, Evening Attire and Snake Mountain scratched.