Flat Out returned to the scene of his most recent triumph Sept. 29—almost a year ago to the day—and won the $1 million TVG Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park for the second time in a row (VIDEO).
"He likes it a lot here, and I do, too, now!" owner Art Preston remarked. "This is a very hard race. I think he's got what Tesio called 'morale.' He's tough-minded."
The 6-year-old son of Flatter became the first back-to-back winner of the 1 1/4-mile event since Curlin took consecutive runnings in 2007-08, completing the distance in 2:01.44 on a track labeld good while digging in to nip Repole Stables' determined Stay Thirsty by a head on the line. Fort Larned, the 5-2 favorite making his first run at Belmont and his first try at the distance, finished third in a field of 10.
Flat Out had not won since taking the 2011 edition of the Gold Cup, but had been on the steady improve for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who took over training duties from Charles "Scooter" Dickey earlier in the year. He finished second in the Monmouth Cup (gr. II) at Monmouth Park in July and ran third in the Aug. 4 Whitney Invitational Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course last time out behind Fort Larned and stablemate Ron the Greek.
Ron the Greek, who won the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) back in March, ran sixth this time.
"It was huge; he was sitting on a big one," Mott said of Flat Out's run. "He trained well coming into it; he ran a huge race last time. You couldn't have asked the horse to run any better than he did the last time out. He's a relatively fresh horse; he had a little break late spring, and he was up for it today. He loves the distance and hopefully we're on to the Breeders' Cup."
Flat Out earned an automatic entry to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park with the win. Last year he finished fifth as the favorite in the Classic run at Churchill Downs.
Speaking of Ron the Greek, Mott remarked, "We have to see. Hopefully it will be the case where he just had an off day. We know that he likes Santa Anita and maybe five weeks from now it will be his day. You can't ever count him out."
Jockey Joel Rosario, riding Flat Out for the first time, gave the perfect ground-saving ride as he angled over to the rail in the first few strides from post 9. The big bay found running room mid-pack off a pace set by 2011 Travers (gr. I) winner Stay Thirsty, who showed the way through a quarter in :23.49 and a strong half in :47.21. Advanced to fifth after three-quarters in 1:11.96, Flat Out tracked along comfortably with the leader in his sights while Stay Thirsty rated ahead of mild pressure from 2011 Belmont (gr. I) winner Ruler On Ice and San Pablo.
"It looked like Joel let him pick off a couple of horses on the backside, and he was doing it under a hold," Mott remarked. "That was a good thing. He hadn't asked him to run. The horse was just striding out and picking up horses."
Rosario swung his mount to the outside coming off the far turn while Fort Larned was also making a run from fourth. Flat Out easily put the favorite away midstretch before looming to contend with a more stubborn foe. Stay Thirsty dug in determinedly on the rail under Ramon Dominguez, but lost the head-bob in the shadow of the wire to the hard-driving winner. Fort Larned was third under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., 5 1/2 lengths farther back.
"That other horse fought on pretty well," Mott said. "Todd (Pletcher) looked like he had him ready today, we just had ours a little more ready. And it wasn't by much. Both horses ran huge races and you have to give a lot of credit to the horse who ran second."
"I could see Flat Out building up some momentum, I knew it was going to be close," Pletcher said. "We layed some pretty solid fractions along the way, I was hoping we had enough to hold on. It was a big effort. We'll talk to Mike (Repole) and see if he wants to try the Classic, or not. It's his call."
Trainer Ian Wilkes said Fort Larned is still Breeders' Cup Classic-bound off his third-place finish.
"My horse ran good; we'll be fine, we'll go to the Breeders' Cup," he said. "I wouldn't want to trade places. Blame got beat here before he beat Zenyatta (in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic). It doesn't pay to win this race to win the Breeders' Cup. You have to look at the bright side. My horse ran. He ran hard. I can't be disappointed; I'm very happy with it. He got a good trip; Brian rode a good race. I've got no problems at all."
Sent off at odds of 7-2, Flat Out returned $9.30, $5.60, and $4. Stay Thirsty paid $10.80 and $6.70 and Fort Larned brought $4. Atigun, Fast Falcon, Ron the Greek, Game Ball, Hymn Book, San Pablo, and Ruler On Ice completed the order of finish.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup score improved Flat Out's record to 6-4-2 from 19 starts and pushed his earnings to $2,042,383. Bred in Florida by Nikolaus Block out of the Cresta Rider mare Cresta Lil, he was an $85,000 purchase from the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky select yearling sale in 2007, after selling as a weanling for $11,000 at the 2006 OBS fall mixed sale.