In the much-anticipated return of Sky Mesa, it was Eugene and Laura Melnyk's rapidly-improving Strong Hope who held on for victory in Sunday's $150,000 Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) by a head over Nacheezmo, with Sky Mesa settling for a non-threatening third.
Undefeated in three starts at 2, Sky Mesa was making his first start since Oct. 5, and the lack of a recent race showed as he failed to show much punch in the stretch while chasing the wicked fractions set by Strong Hope in the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer. The final time for the field of seven 3-year-olds was 1:41 3/5.
Strong Hope, who won his fourth race in a row, faced stakes company for the first time. Ridden by John Velazquez, he was not to be denied, even after splits of :23 1/5, :45 3/5 and 1:09 3/5. After pace challenger Albaaz was dismissed early, Sky Mesa and Edgar Prado picked up the challenge to Strong Hope, but the John Ward-traineee did not persevere in the stretch.
"Watching the other races unfold today, the track wasn't kind toward speed necessarily," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "It wasn't biased, but it wasn't one of those speed-carrying tracks. We knew he was going to show speed and we wanted to slow him down as much as we could. He broke pretty relaxed and the first quarter was decent. He was pretty strong the second quarter and the three-quarters time was exceptional. On the middle of the turn, you could see Nacheezmo revving up pretty strong. I knew Strong Hope would have to produce a pretty strong effort to hold him off and he was able to pull it off."
Nacheezmo, with Jorge Chavez aboard, enjoyed a ground-saving trip into the stretch and made an impressive effort to nab the winner at the wire, but just missed.
"I have no excuses," said Chavez. "My horse ran a big race. Strong Hope was getting tired in the last 20 yards. My horse just ran out of ground."
"I was trying to settle him down on the backstretch," said winning rider John Velazquez. "I was telling Todd that someone else was smooching their horse to go on and (Strong Hope) thought it was me. He started running harder, but I didn't want to fight him. I took a hold of him on the turn. It was a big effort. He had to run so hard throughout the entire race. You don't see too many horses improve like this in four straight starts."
Sky Mesa wrenched his ankle hours before he was scheduled to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and has been sidelined since. Sky Mesa stalked the pace in the Dwyer and held on to finish third.
"I was pleased," said Sky Mesa's trainer John Ward Jr. "Anytime you have a horse coming back running the first three-quarters in nine (1:09), and he's right there, I'm happy. That nine was a little more than he wanted to do, but he sucked it back up and finished. Going two turns, they're not going to be going nine like that. They'll be sitting there holding instead of speed and that's what we need. For his first race back, I was totally happy. If he would have won going nine and 35 (1:35), it might have taken us six to eight weeks to get him back. His next race will either be the Travers or the Jim Dandy."
"He ran good today," added Prado. "The horse in front (Strong Hope) was going along easy. I stayed in striking distance. Sky Mesa's been off a while but he's paid his dues. He came back super and is ready for some big times later this year."
Strong Hope, a bay colt by Grand Slam who did not race at 2, has won four of five while earning $90,000 for the victory, which more than doubled his career bankroll to $172,360.
"The next step in the equation is two turns and we'll see how he handles two turns," added Pletcher. "Sometimes with two turns, it will kind of slow a horses momentum down a little bit going into the first turn. We think he's a nice colt and we'll probably go to the Jim Dandy or the Haskell next and see where he fits. Part of the equation there will be who the players are. With Funny Cide and Peace Rules most likely going to the Haskell, right now, as far as you can project those things, the Jim Dandy would probably have a slower pace scenario."
The Jim Dandy at Saratoga and the Haskell at Monmouth both take place at nine furlongs on August 3.
Bred in Kentucky by Trackside Farm, G A Seelbinder and Liberation Farm, Strong Hope was a $1.7 million Fasig-Tipton August Yearling purchase at Saratoga.
Sent off as the second choice at 5-2, The winner paid $7, $4.20 and $2.70. Nacheezmo returned $7.60 and $4.10. Sky Mesa, the 7-5 favorite, showed for $2.10. The $2 exacta was $42.40.