John D. Gunther's homebred Last Gunfighter overcame a troubled start and came through on the rail to win the $150,000 Excelsior Stakes (gr. III) March 23 at Aqueduct Racetrack, earning his first graded stakes score while 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Ruler On Ice finished fifth (VIDEO) .
The 4-year-old son of First Samurai , streaking into the 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds and up with four straight wins including a recent half-length tally over Isn't He Perfect in the Jan. 19 Evening Attire Stakes, went the distance in 1:50.78. He finished two lengths ahead of 2-1 favorite Mordi's Miracle for trainer Chad Brown as the third choice under jockey Rajiv Maragh, with Isn't He Perfect 7 1/2 lengths back in third.
"On paper, it looked like there'd be pace for him to run into," said Brown's assistant, Cherie DeVaux. "He ran naturally where he would have been; he wasn't going to go up there with the pace. He fell in where he belonged and picked it up in the end. Rajiv did a very good job at keeping cool, finding a good place to go, and not panicking or going someplace he didn't belong."
Pinched between horses at the break, Maragh took Last Gunfighter back to a comfortable stalking spot fifth on the inside as Mordi's Miracle and Colizeo dueled for the early lead through opening fractions of :22.73 and :46.84. Three-quarters went in 1:11.44 with those two pressuring each other on the front end, and the one for Last Gunfighter to run down turning for home was Mordi's Miracle, who opened a brief half-length advantage while getting a mile in 1:37.87.
"I had an opening on the inside because the leader was about two paths off the rail," said Maragh. "I went for it, and he was doing a little race riding and came in on me. Then I angled out, and the leader stepped out again. I had a lot of horse, I was just trying to find a clear path, wherever it was. Once I did, he just ran on strong to the end."
The eventual winner closed well up the rail in deep stretch to claim his fifth straight victory.
"He doesn't seem to have any distance limitations," Maragh said. "I had a lot left to the wire; I really didn't squeeze him for everything today. Coming inside the eighth pole we kind of had it wrapped up by then, and it felt like I had a lot more there. Going into the first turn, it was a very ideal situation for me. The track here, sometimes if a horse gets loose on the lead it's hard to catch them, but obviously it was a good, contested pace today and it made me just feel comfortable sitting back there a few lengths off and waiting for the right time."
Ruler On Ice folded after a four-wide journey.
Off at odds of 3-1, Last Gunfighter returned $8.30, $3.90, and $2.80, while Mordi's Miracle paid $3.20 and $2.60, and Isn't He Perfect brought $4.30. Joan's Choice, Ruler On Ice, Colizeo, and Heart Butte completed the order of finish.
A dark bay colt, Last Gunfighter ran second or third in four maiden special weight attempts from January to March of 2012 when trained by Helen Pitts, three at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and one at Oaklawn Park, before going to the sidelines.
He has been undefeated since transferring to Brown. Returning from the layup, he finally broke his maiden last October at Belmont Park. He then won a November allowance optional claimer before taking the Raymond Earl Stakes by 4 3/4 last Dec. 9, leading to his Evening Attire win.
Bred in Kentucky out of the Sir Cat mare Saratoga Cat, Last Gunfighter improved his record to 5-2-2 from nine starts, with earnings of $295,405.