Magna Graduate, sidelined for most of the year, took command of Saturday's $107,700 Queen's County Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct soon after the start en route to his first victory of 2006.
The Todd Pletcher-trained 4-year-old Honor Grades colt set an even pace in the 1 3/16-mile test under John Velazquez. They spurted away from the field on the turn from home and won without a challenge in an excellent time of 1:55, one tick off the inner track record at Aqueduct. The winning margin was 6 1/2 lengths.
Elisabeth Alexander's Magna Graduate concluded the 2005 season with three successive graded stakes victories, culminating in the Clark Handicap (gr. II), and was expected to do some big things this year. However, after a fourth-place finish in the Donn Handicap (gr. I), Magna Graduate was injured in a fourth-place effort – later moved to third -- in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and missed most of the year. He returned to action Nov. 4 with a 10th-place finish as the favorite in the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, his most recent start.
The Queens County, which marked Magna Graduate's first start on Aqueduct's inner dirt track, gave a truer picture of the horse.
"It didn't seem that there was much pace," said Pletcher. "Generally, he's not a front-runner, but in this scenario, he found himself there. To tell you the truth, when we shipped him to Churchill Downs (for the Ack Ack), he was training so well. I don't know if he was on the wrong part of the race track. It was early in the day, and the longer the day went on, it was obvious that you didn't want to be outside like he was. We'll take him down to Florida and see what's next."
Facing five foes as the 118-pound high weight Saturday, Magna Graduate led nearly from the start while carving out :24, :48 and 1:122 fractions. Angliana pressed from the outside, with Naughty New Yorker also giving chase. Magna Graduate was well in hand as he gradually opened the lead to three lengths nearing the quarter pole. Magna Graduate, shaken up once in the stretch, poured it on and finished willingly.
"The first two or three jumps, he kind of scrambled a little bit," said Velazquez. "I picked him up, put him on the rail, and he was fine after that. Once I got him up, he was fine. After that, any time a horse got close to him, he just took off. It's good to see him back. He's got such a big heart."
Papi Chullo, given a ground-saving trip right behind the early leaders by Mike Smith, began to lose ground on the final turn but responded when asked to prove he was clearly second best. Smart Growth was a distant third, 15 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
Magna Graduate earned $64,620 for his seventh win in 19 lifetime starts, banking $1,543,950. He paid $4.20, $3.10, and $2.60.
Papi Chullo returned $4.60 and $4.
Delaware invader Smart Growth, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, was $3.70 to show.
Angliana, Naughty New Yorker, and Awesome Twist trailed.
Nicole Zitani and Ramon Rangel bred Magna Graduate in Kentucky. The $30,000 Keeneland yearling sale in 2003 is out of the Fast Play mare Peacock Alley.