Edward P. Evan's hard-knocking Gygistar got the pace he was looking for Wednesday and rallied to win the 77th running of the $109,500 Westchester Handicap (gr. III), the opening-day feature at Belmont Park's spring/summer meeting.
It was also Belmont Park's 100th birthday, and the occasion drew a crowd of 9,068.
Gygistar, a grade I winner who carried top weight of 118 pounds, finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Swingforthefences in the one-turn mile event for 3-year-olds and up, hitting the finish line in 1:33 2/5.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, the 6-year-old Gygistar posted his third win in his last 15 starts by staying far off 11-10 favorite Value Plus, who went in slick fractions of :22 2/5; :44 3/5 and 1:08 4/5. Castellano merely swung his mount outside midway on the turn and inhaled the front-runners.
Swingforthefences, who carried 115, was last early when he made his move with Gygistar. He was caught between horses coming off the turn and forced to check. When he and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan re-gathered themselves, Gygistar had beaten them to the lead.
"He loves this track," said trainer Mark Hennig of Gygistar, who has now won four of six starts at Belmont Park. "He's always run well over it. This makes us think about holding off and waiting for the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II). We would love to have a shot at the Met Mile (gr. I) but in his best interest at this point, I would like to get as much confidence as we can into him. The more wins you get into him, the happier he is."
The $250,000 Brooklyn is at 1 1/8 miles on Belmont Stakes day June 11. The $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap, also at Belmont Park, is May 30.
Although it was nearly nine lengths back to Value Plus in third, the race was big considering he held the show despite the quick early pace.
"He was inside," said jockey John Velazquez, who broke from post 2. "He was very aggressive and I couldn't take him back. He ran a very good race, considering the fractions he was going. It's just unfortunate that he had an inside post position."
The second choice in a field of seven, Gygistar paid $7.80, $3.70 and $2.60. Swingforthefences returned $4.40 and $2.70. Value Plus was $2.80 to show.
Unforgettable Max, Seeking the Glory, Kennel Up and Wando completed the order of finish. Bahama John was scratched.