California-bred Moscow Burning shipped east to snatch the $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT) for fillies and mares Saturday in gate to wire fashion on a yielding Belmont Park inner turf course.
It was the first graded stakes win for Moscow Burning, a 4-year-old filly by Moscow Ballet who carried 113 pounds. Ridden by Mike Smith, she defeated favored Spice Island and Jerry Bailey by one length in a time of 2:18 1/5 for the 1 3/8-mile turf test.
Meridiana, whose three-race winning streak was broken, finished third. She defeated Moscow Burning by 2 1/4 lengths in the March 21 Orchid Handicap (gr. IIT) at Gulfstream Park.
In that race, it was Meridiana who got to the lead and was able to stretch it over the 12-furlong distance as Moscow Burning finished fifth. Saturday, Moscow Burning, starting inside of Meridiana, won the break and was able to coax an easy pace of :25 1/5, :51 2/5, 1:17 3/5, 1:42 2/5 and 2:06 2/5.
"We were really disappointed in the Orchid, because we expected her to be on the lead there," said winning trainer James Cassidy. "Traveling back and forth is a little hard on them, but nevertheless, she is pretty tough."
Meridiana, tracking on the outside of the pacesetter for Edgar Prado a length to 1 1/2-length behind, launched her bid at the head of the stretch, but Moscow Burning repelled the challenge and opened up by three lengths in the stretch. Spice Island, fourth in the seven-horse field while saving ground to the lane, rallied well but could not threaten the winner, who dug in strongly for the long stretch run.
Smith, New York's leading rider in the early 1990s and now a California resident, apparently remembered Belmont Park and what he knew of Moscow Burning.
"I was excited about coming back here, especially being well-mounted," Smith said. "On paper, I remember looking at the Gulfstream race. They took this mare back. I've watched her races in California, and she's always placed forward. She's always eager and willing. I thought today they would probably give us the lead. We can go as slow as we can for the first part, then kick away."
Bailey said he misjudged Spice Island's closing ability.
"I could have let her done more in the middle of the race, but I thought I had enough to jump on her (Moscow Burning) turning for home," Bailey said. "She gives you the feeling that she has a tremendous kick, and it is just a steady gain. Having ridden her now, I would let her do a little more in the middle of a race."
Alternate ran fourth, followed by Andover Lady, Miss Hellie and Savedbythelight .
Moscow Burning got six pounds from the second and third-place finishers.
Owned by Jeffrey Mariani, Michael Nentwig and Dallas Van Kempen, who claimed her from breeders Harris Farms and Ken Maddy Trust for $25,000 Aug. 7, Moscow Burning was coming off a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Fran's Valentine for Cal breds on the Hollywood Park grass April 24. She won for the first time at 11 furlongs and now has an 8-3-0 record in 14 career outings. She has banked $487,165.
"She was tough when we got her in the beginning," Cassidy said. "She didn't want to train. But this TLC (tender loving care) stuff has really helped her. I didn't know how she would handle the turf here if there were no bottom to it. I told Mike, in the first five strides, if he felt comfortable to just nurse her along. He was just walking dogs."
The third choice of the public, she paid $10.40, $4.50 and $2.60. Spice Island, the 9-5 favorite, returned $3.50 and $2.50. Meridiana was $2.50 to show. The $2 exacta was worth $39.