Bill Heiligbrodt's Gaff overcame a wide trip on a yielding turf course to overtake favored Unbridled Sidney leaving the eighth pole and register a 1 1/4-length win in Friday's $169,050 Aegon Turf Sprint (gr. IIIT) (VIDEO) at cloudy Churchill Downs.
The 5-year-old son of Maria's Mon under jockey John Velazquez covered the five-furlong turf distance in :56 4/5. Ellwood and Jake took second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Congo King.
Unbridled Sidney and Chief What It Is dueled for the early lead through fast fractions for the conditions of :21 4/5 and :45 as the field rounded the turn for home. Gaff found an opening in the center of the track and edged away to win.
“He ran a perfect race," Velazquez said of the winner. "He seemed to like the soft course. We thought the course was going to better on the outside so I kept him as the ground felt better out there. We were trying to stay away from the rail and it worked out great."
Trained by Steve Asmussen for his first start on the Churchill grass, Gaff returned $9.60, $5, and $3.60. Ellwood and Jake, ridden by Garrett Gomez, paid $5.80 and $3.80, while Congo King, Julien Leparoux aboard, was $5 to show.
“The race set up very well for us," Asmussen said. "Unbridled Sidney is brilliant and had someone go with her. It was the best case scenario for us.”
Asmussen said that Gaff likely would remain a turf sprinter after having had success on both surfaces. “This is what he should be doing,” he said.
Gaff, now two-for-two sprinting five furlongs on grass, earned $101,671 for his seventh win in 20 lifetime starts and has now banked $494,818. Winner of Gulfstream Park's Mr. Prospector Handicap (gr. III) on the dirt last year, Gaff was coming off a fourth-place finish in the Kenner Stakes on the Fair Grounds main track March 24.
The California challenger Ellwood and Jake made a bold move on the outside to loom as a threat in the final furlong but was unable to sustain his momentum. The Mike Mitchell trainee took several bad steps after crossing under the finish line and was pulled up with a swollen left front fetlock. He was splinted by track veterinarians and vanned back to his barn for x-rays.
Roi Charmant finished fourth, followed by The Nth Degree, Unbridled Sidney, Chief What It Is and Sgt. Bert. Chosen Chief, Mighty Beau, Junior College and Lifestyle scratched.
“She just got hooked all the way around there," said Robby Albarado of Unbridled Sidney. "I could never give her a breather. She’s been off awhile, and I wanted to get her by herself and let her catch her breath for a second effort.”