(from Arlington Park report)
Merriefield Farm’s favored Always First, second in his last two starts, fought pacesetter Cloudy’s Knight in a long drive to the wire, prevailing in the final stride by a nose in the $200,000 Stars and Stripes Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT), the traditional Fourth of July headliner at Arlington Park.
Before a crowd of 16,689, Robby Albarado rode the Tom Voss-trained son of Barathea to victory, covering the 1 1/2-mile distance over soft turf in 2:31.87.
The winner recorded back-to-back second-place finishes in grade III races in his prior two starts in 2007 -- the Elkhorn Handicap at Keeneland and the Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs -- both at the 12-furlong distance.
Always First, the 17-10 choice, sat off the pace set by Cloudy’s Knight with easy fractions of :25.88, :52.05, 1:17.50, 1:42.93 and 2:07.78. By design the 6-year-old gelding was closer than usual.
“I wanted to keep him closer and not leave him as much work to do,” said Albarado, who previously won the Stars and Stripes in 1995 with Snake Eyes and the 2000 edition with Williams News. “I left him too much work to do at Churchill. Today, I kept him forward, and he prevailed as the best one.”
The Stars and Stripes was the first graded win for Always First since the 2005 Sunset Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) at Hollywood Park. The 6-year-old bay gelding's overall record improved to five wins from 17 starts. He added $118,500 to his bankroll, which now stands at $431,552. Voss indicated that Always First may run next in the Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) at Saratoga on Aug. 11.
“I had a great trip,” said Ramsey Zimmerman, who rode runner-up Cloudy’s Knight, who also finished second in the 2005 edition. “I had everything my own way, but I just got nailed.”
It was another three-quarters of a length back to the closing third-place finisher Stream Cat. Come On Jazz, Ramazutti, Swagger Stick, and Major Rhythm completed the order of finish. Fantastic Spain and Mining for Silver scratched.
Always First paid $5.40, $3, and $2.40.
Cloudy’s Knight returned $4 and $3.40.
Stream Cat paid $3.60.