Red-hot Researcher took his jump into graded stakes company in stride by winning the $108,400 Queens County Handicap (gr. III) (VIDEO) at Aqueduct Dec. 13 for his fourth consecutive victory.
West Virginia trainer Jeff Runco earned his first graded stakes win as well.
“He stepped it up a notch in those last three races," Runco said of his charge. “I’m very excited. This is my first graded stakes win and it means even more getting it in New York. But I almost didn’t get to New York. My flight got delayed into JFK and I only got here a half hour before the race.”
Researcher angled three wide in the stretch to reach contention, eventually heading pacesetter Brilliant Son at the eighth pole and prevailing by a half-length under urging from jockey Mike Luzzi. The final time for the 1 3/16-mile event on Aqueduct's inner turf course was a solid 1:55.87 on a fast track.
Brilliant Son, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, offered stiff resistance to the winner and was a clear second by 5 1/2 lengths. Dry Martini, the slight 8-5 favorite in the five-horse field over Sir Whimsey, finished third.
Researcher stalked an even pace in third along the inside as Brilliant Son comfortably led Temporary Saint into the final turn after posting quarter-mile fractions of :23.32, :47.44 and 1:11.51. Temporary Saint increased the pressure on Brilliant Son rounding the turn as Researcher angled out for the drive on the outside of the leaders. In the homestretch, Temporary Saint gradually backed out as Brilliant Son and Researcher battled on. Researcher, under steady left-handed encouragement from Luzzi, gained control in the final furlong and outlasted his rival.
“We had a perfect trip," said Luzzi, who said he worked for Runco about 20 years ago. "The race worked out pretty much the way it looked on paper. My brother (John) breezed this horse, called me about him. He’s a push button horse.”
Dry Martini and Sir Whimsey raced at the back of the pack most of the way, taking closer order leaving the turn but lacking much response in the lane. Sir Whimsey edged Temporary Saint by a neck for fourth, 2 3/4 lengths behind Dry Martini, who was coming off a smashing win in the Stuyvesant Handicap (gr. III) in the mud Nov. 15.
Owned by Rutledge Farm, Researcher has recorded his four wins in a row at different racetracks. The 4-year-old Two Smart gelding, based at Charles Town, has been on a roll since being switched back to dirt after a couple of third-place efforts on the Colonial Downs turf course last June. He won an optional claiming allowance race at Laurel Park by nearly five lengths in September, then came back Oct. 17 to dominate a minor stake at Charles Town by 14 lengths. The bay won his most recent start, the one-mile Mountaineer Mile Handicap at Mountaineer Park, by three-quarters of a length over a good track Nov. 8.
Researcher, making his graded stake debut here, boasts a career mark of 8-3-2 in 14 starts with earnings of $289,870 after collecting the Queens County winner's share of $65,040.
Bred by the Virginia Tech Foundation, Researcher is out of Wild Magnolia, by Apalachee.
Sent off as the third choice, the winner carried 114 pounds to victory and paid $8.10, $4.20, and $2.70. Brilliant Son, fitted once again with blinkers by trainer Kiaran McLauglin following a fifth-place finish in the Stuyvesant Handicap (gr. III) in the mud last time out, nearly got the job done while returning $8 and $3.70. The $2 exacta was worth $2.40. Grade II winner Dry Martini, saddled by trainer William Turner Jr., was $2.40 to show as the 118-pound co-high weight.