Shadwell Stable's Invasor, nearly overtaken by the surging Sun King, dug in for the final furlong to emerge with a nose victory in $750,000 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course Saturday.
The Argentine-bred Invasor, a former Horse of the Year in Uruguay, won his third successive grade I race in the U.S. in as many starts to establish himself as perhaps the leading handicap horse in the country. The 4-year-old bay Candy Stripes colt has won eight of nine in his career and went over the $1 million mark in earnings.
Fernando Jara drove Invasor to victory for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, Saratoga's marquee event for handicap horses, was 1:49 flat. Invasor carried co-top weight of 120 pounds, three more than Sun King.
"I was worried at the eighth pole," a relieved McLaughlin said. "We had been in a fight throughout and Sun King came to us. We were in a dogfight. It was a great race. Today, he dug in and showed a great desire to win. I thought we won, but I had to watch it over again.
"Two more wins, and we might have Uruguay's Horse of the Year and America's Horse of the Year".
Flower Alley, the Todd Pletcher-trained favorite in the nine-horse field, was in the contention as the field spread out six across the track at the top of the lane, but faded to seventh.
Instead, it was the surprising Sun King, beaten a head by Silver Train in Belmont's Met Mile (gr. I) more than two months ago, who hooked up with Invasor in mid-stretch. Although forced widest of all on the far turn, it appeared that Sun King, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, had the momentum and would go on to win. But Invasor, on the inside, battled back under frantic urging from Jara to gain the victory in the final jump.
"Every big race, he's right there," said Nick Zito, trainer of Sun King. "It's sad. It's heart-breaking. He's a great horse. Did you hear the crowd? They were all rooting for Sun King. But what are you going to do? "
Saratoga socialite and leading owner Marylou Whitney made her first public appearance since suffering a mild stroke in May to present the trophy to Jara, McLaughlin, and Shadwell Stable, who combined to win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Jazil in June.
"It has been an unbelievable year," McLaughlin said. "Hopefully, we can keep these big wins coming. We're not sure about the Woodward or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (both gr. I). Sheikh Hamdan (bin Rashid al Maktoum) asked to run him once more before the Breeders' Cup."
The driving finish was a far cry from Invasor's earlier American wins. Following his lone defeat – when fourth, seven lengths behind Discreet Cat in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) – Invasor captured the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special Handicap (gr. I) at Pimlico by 1 1/4 lengths and the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont by 4 1/2 lengths a month ago. The winner's share of $450,000 pushed Invasor's career earnings to $1,204,070.
Siphon City ensured a fast pace, sprinting to the early lead over Wanderin Boy and clipping off lively fractions of :23, :47 1/5 and 1:11 1/5 as Flower Alley and Invasor stalked the leaders. As the favorites moved to challenge on the outside, Wanderin Boy took over at the head of the stretch and led briefly until overtaken by Invasor. Sun King, racing near the rear of the pack, got a nudge from Bejarano on the turn and emerged as the main challenger on the extreme outside as the others fell back.
"I wanted to stay close to Johnny (Velazquez on Flower Alley) because he was the horse to beat," Jara said. "When (Invasor) got to the lead, I thought he was waiting on horses. Once Sun King got to him, he just gave me more. He never let him by after the finish line."
It was 5 3/4 lengths back to the Pletcher-trained West Virginia, who closed mildly for third under Garrett Gomez.
The narrow second choice, Invasor paid $5.50, $3.80, and $3.10.
Sun King returned $5.70 and $4.80, completing a $39 exacta.
"Coming down the stretch, we were getting closer to Invasor," said Bejarano of the runner-up. "I knew we were ahead at one point, and at the wire, I thought we had the race won. Sun King has a lot of heart, but Invasor is a tough horse."
West Virginia was $6.50 to show.
We Can Seek finished fourth, followed by Premium Tap, Wanderin Boy, Flower Alley, Siphon City and Survivalist.
Pletcher said he didn't know what happened to Flower Alley, the 3-2 favorite making his second start of the year.
"Flower Alley was in good position during the race," he said. "We had Invasor inside of us and we were in the spot we wanted to be, but he couldn't kick home at the three-eighths pole like we needed him to."