Buckram Oak Farm's Najran shattered the one-mile track record at Belmont Park on the opening day card with an impressive victory in the Westchester Handicap (gr. III). His time for the one-turn mile was a blistering 1:32.24.
The previous Belmont mark was held by Williamstown, who set a mark of 1:32.60 on May 5, 1993 in the Withers Stakes (gr. II) for 3-year-olds.
Najran's performance equaled the North American dirt record for a mile set by Tartan Farms' Hall of Famer Dr. Fager on August 24, 1968 in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park.
"I knew he was going to run big, but I never dreamed he would run this big," said winning trainer Nick Zito. "I'm glad he did. It is unbelievable to have the (North American) record."
Ridden by Edgar Prado for the first time, Najran burst quickly from post 1 and opened up a sizable lead on the field while running well off the rail. The opening fractions of :22.65 and :44.67 gave Prado and Najran a 3 1/2-length lead. Giving the gray a futile early chase were Regal Sanction and Saint Appeal. Favored Saarland broke last in the field of seven and was content to remain toward the back of the back.
Najran's lead remained multiple lengths as he turned for home, hitting the quarter pole in an eye-popping 1:07.76--and showed no sign of stopping. His eight-length lead at the eighth pole did diminish to 4 1/2-lengths at the wire but the outcome was never in doubt. Despite the teeth-rattling fractions, Najran still got his final quarter-mile in :24.48.
"I had told Edgar (Prado) to go as wide as he can because he likes to change leads," Zito said. "It was really a tremendous effort. I'm going to take him to Saratoga, and if he is okay, we'll run him in the Met Mile."
Prado noted, "I was inside on a horse with speed, so I had to send him and take advantage. He was just galloping on the front end. He was going so easy, I was surprised at how fast he ran."
Cynthia Phipps' Saarland, the 6-5 choice, rallied to finish a distance second. Saarland was riding a two-race win streak, both allowance races at Aqueduct. Those were his first two starts back since running 10th in last year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) for trainer Shug McGaughey, who was far from disappointed with Saarland's race Wednesday.
"Horses haven't been backing up today," he said of the track. "The winner ran three-quarters in seven and change (1:07 3/5) and kept on going. I don't know what happened at the break. He didn't break that sharp. I think he gave away too much, but he ran a good race. We'll probably run in the Brooklyn Handicap next."
Three lengths behind Saarland was Joseph Shields' Justification, sent off at 13-1. The Allen Jerkens-trained 6-year-old was also coming in on a two-race win streak. The New York-bred Gander, the second choice in the $109,700 Westchester was fourth.
Najran is a son of Runaway Groom out of the Capote mare Line Command. A $100,000 Keeneland September yearling, Najran had a 5-1-1 slate from 10 career starts entering the Westchester. A third-place finisher in the Hal's Hope (gr. III) at Gulfstream, Najran finished seventh and last in his prior start, the seven-furlong Commonwealth Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at Keeneland.
"He acted up in the gate before the race at Keeneland and got beat 40 lengths (actually 34 1/4)," Zito said. "The good thing Eibar Coa (jockey) did, which I thank him for, is that he didn't exert him when he knew something was wrong. He came back and had three beautiful weeks. You could see those works; those were real works and this is a real horse. I thought he would be at least a length in front turning for home."
Bred in Kentucky by France and Irv Weiner, the winner paid $12.80, $4.70 and $3.20. Saarland returned $3.10 and $2.40. Justification showed for $4.50. The $2 exacta was worth $37.40.