Joseph Allen's Irish-bred Asti spotted the field 14 lengths after a quarter mile but rallied gamely in the stretch to win the $111,300 Athenia Handicap for fillies and mares at muddy Belmont Park Saturday.
The Athenia, rated a grade III for the turf, was moved from the lawn to the muddy main track after days of rain at Belmont Park. As a result, Asti was making her first start on anything but grass. She hesitated coming out of the gate and was hopelessly last in the field of six on the backstretch.
But Asti, sent off at odds of 7-1, made up good ground for Jorge Chavez along the inside as they neared the stretch. They altered course to find room on the outside in upper stretch and finished with determination to edge the pacesetting even-money favorite Bohemian Lady by three-quarters of a length. The final time was 1:42 2/5 for the 1 1/16-mile event.
Asti carried 114 pounds, six less than the top-weighted Bohemian Lady.
"She's never composed," said her trainer Allen Jerkens, whose record for upsetting the likes of Kelso, Secretariat and Buckpasser earned him the nickname "The Giant Killer."
"She is always so upset. We've spent lots of time trying to get her to settle down in the morning.
"I never thought she would be so far back. I had an inkling that she would run well on the dirt, because she always worked well on it leading up to a turf race. You never know until you try.
"This was kind of a shock. The pace was good for her and she made a strong run."
It was another three-quarters of a length to Zosima, with My Lordship, Miss Mambo, and Sharp Needle trailing.
The change in surface knocked out Delta Princess, Natalie Beach, Moon Dazzle, and Fortunate Damsel.
It looked like Bohemian Lady, one of three entered for the main track only, would have the race all to herself. She broke smartly and, while pressed by My Lordship who was racing with blinkers through fractions of :23 1/5; :45 4/5 and 1:10 1/5, she started to edge away from the field entering the stretch.
But with less than a furlong to go, Chavez got into Asti, who gobbled up ground in the middle of the lane and came home the winner. It was the first win in eight tries this year and second in 16 lifetime starts for the 4-year-old daughter of Sadler's Wells.
"I was shocked when she broke slow," Chavez said. "I said, `Oh, my gosh!' I just took my time, At the five-eighths pole, she started to pick it up and get into gear. When I took her to the outside, I started whipping, and she responded. I was surprised how she ran today."
Asti was third in the Noble Damsel Handicap (gr. IIIT) on the turf at Belmont Sept. 24 in her last start, beaten by 1 1/2 lengths.
"The last time she ran really good, she just hung on me the last 50 yards," Chavez said.
Asti paid $16.20, $4.30, and $3.10.
Bohemian Lady, ridden by Mike Luzzi, returned $2.80 and $2.40.
Zosima, Jose Santos aboard, was $5.20 to show.