After being eased during his seasonal debut in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) Feb. 7 at Gulfstream Park, Protonico bounced back with an easy victory in the $150,000 Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO) April 11 at Keeneland.
With the front-running victory, Sumaya U.S. Stables' Protonico secured the third graded stakes win of his career. The 4-year-old son of Giant's Causeway won last year's Discovery Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct Racetrack and the Smarty Jones Stakes (gr. III) at Parx Racing.
With a pair of recent bullet works signaling his readiness, including a four-furlong breeze in :47 2/5 April 5 at Keeneland, Protonico took control of the 1 1/8-mile race from the start under jockey Javier Castellano. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Protonico led through a half-mile in :47.49 and then left no doubt in the stretch, easily drawing off while completing the test in 1:48.79 on a fast track.
It marked the first gate-to-wire victory for Protonico since his career debut—a six-furlong maiden race in September of 2013 under Castellano at Delaware Park.
"When we were handicapping the race, I didn't see much speed," Castellano said. "I took advantage—my horse has speed. I rode him before (when he broke his maiden in September 2013 at Delaware Park) and was in the lead wire to wire. I tried to do the same today, and it worked out very well. The way he did it (was) very easy. Turning for home, when I asked he responded so well."
Sent off the 4-5 favorite, Protonico returned $3.60 to win, $2.60 to place, and $2.20 to show. A. Stevens Miles Jr.'s Neck 'n Neck earned his second straight stakes placing, and returned $6.40 to place and $4.60 to show. Ami's Holiday finished 2 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up, finishing third and returning $4.40 to show.