Charles Fipke's Jersey Town out-staged notable rivals Shackleford and To Honor and Serve in the Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park, driving to a convincing 3 1/2-length decision beneath Javier Castellano. The Barclay Tagg-trained horse snapped a 23-month losing streak in the process, notching his first victory since the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in 2010, and earned a berth to the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he will be a viable contender if he runs back to Saturday's performance.
Shackleford showed the way after the break, establishing a fast opening quarter-mile in :22 2/5 while being chased by Trickmeister, and Tapizar was about three lengths back in third, just ahead of Jersey Town to his inside. Golddigger's Boy and even-money favorite To Honor and Serve brought up the rear in the six-horse field. Shackleford, the 9-5 second choice, continued to wing along up front, completing a half-mile in a wicked :45 while a length clear of Trickmeister, and Jersey Town was edging closer under a firm hold, gearing up for his challenge down along the rail as he rounded the far turn.
Castellano guided Jersey Town off the inside and split rivals as they entered the stretch. Shackleford was still clinging to a head advantage as they reached six furlongs in 1:09 1/5, but Jersey Town was going the better of the two and quickly surged clear in midstretch, reaching the eighth pole with a 2 1/2-length lead. The chestnut cruised to the finish line while drifting out late, finishing a mile in 1:35 1/5 on the drying-out "good" track.
Off as the 8-1 fourth choice, the winner paid $18, $6.80 and $5.90.
"It worked out great. It was a hot pace today," Castellano explained. "There was a lot speed in the race, and it was a small field. It worked out really good for me. I just followed the best horse in the race. Turning for home, the horses got tired; they started backing up a little bit. My horse is a really nice horse to ride. He split horses and took off, and I'm very satisfied with the way he did it."
Shackleford held second, three-quarters of a length better than Trickmeister. It was another 4 1/2 lengths back to Honor and Serve, who was in position to challenge turning for home but lacked a rally. Golddigger's Boy and Tapizar came next under the wire. Gallant Fields, Isn't He Perfect and Pacific Ocean were all scratched.
"I was a little surprised (by Jersey Town's victory) because the race came up really, really tough," Tagg said. "I was debating whether to go in the (Grade 1 Vosburgh at six furlongs) or the (Kelso). That took a lot of figuring out. I had one reporter angry with me because I told him I was going in the sprint and I went in the mile. I like miles better than sprints, anyway.
"I didn't think I could beat (To Honor and Serve) when he's at his best," the conditioner added. "He looks like a monster horse when he's at his best."
"He was dull, a little dull," trainer Bill Mott said of To Honor and Serve, who impressively captured the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes on September 1. "He didn't break; Johnny just said he was a little flat. He didn't put in any kind of effort. I understood the risk in running him today, but I wanted to run him because I felt it was my best shot five weeks from now in the Breeders' Cup. Whether that turns out to be the case or not, I'll have to answer that question myself in five weeks, but I just thought running him today was the best thing for me to get him to the Breeders' Cup Classic."
Jersey Town opened 2012 with a close second in the March 31 Sir Shackleton at Gulfstream Park, but spent four months on the sidelines before returning with a non-threatening sixth in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt on August 5. He entered the Kelso off a third, beaten 4 3/4 lengths, in the Grade 1 Forego on September 1.
"(Jersey Town) just needed to have a couple of races in a row before this one," Tagg said. "I thought he needs that kind of thing. He's a real hefty horse. He needs to train hard, but he really doesn't have the legs and feet to train hard on. You have to hit a happy medium, and things were just coming together real nicely for him this fall, so we took a shot at it."
Tagg confirmed that the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile will be next.
Shackleford, who finished second in the 2011 Dirt Mile, is also headed to the November 3 race at Santa Anita.
"I've seen him go faster and keep going," trainer Dale Romans said of the Kelso runner-up. "It was a little different track today; I told (jockey) Ramon (Dominguez) to take the race to them and make them pass us. Trickmeister is a fast horse, he was running with us and we were going too fast up front. Jersey Town just ran a big race today. I'd like to have gotten the trophy, but it puts us in a good position going to the Breeders' Cup."
Jersey Town, a six-year-old son of champion sprinter Speightstown, registered his first stakes win in the aforementioned Cigar Mile. He finished third in last year's Kelso and also recorded a pair of seconds in the Forego and Teddy Drone Stakes before concluding 2011 with a sixth in the Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky-bred also placed in a couple of stakes in 2009 and three black-type events in 2010. With Saturday's $240,000 payday, he has earned $789,668 from a 20-6-8-3 career mark.
Jersey Town hails from a regal female family. His dam, the Belong to Me mare Jersey Girl, posted Grade 1 wins in the Mother Goose, Test Stakes and Acorn in 1998. Third dam Bid Gal is responsible Grade 2 winner and sire Valid Wager and stakes victress Copelan's Bid Gal, who produced 2005 Cigar Mile winner and sire Purge. Grade 3 hero and sire Valid Expectations is another prominent relative.