Lunar Victory and Saratoga Snacks were the favorite and second choice, respectively, in the $250,000 Empire Classic at Belmont Park Oct. 20—and they ran that way. In a thrilling edition of the stakes event for New York-bred contenders, it was Lunar Victory who prevailed, but not before Saratoga Snacks gave him a run for the money (VIDEO).
Saratoga Snacks was the pacesetter in the 1 1/8-mile event, while Lunar Victory raced slightly wide in fifth behind opening fractions of :23.56 and :46.61. By the time Saratoga Snacks ticked through three-quarters in 1:11.03, Lunar Victory had commenced his move under jockey Junior Alvarado and was poised to engage the frontrunner on the turn for home.
The two widened a gap on the rest of the field, racing neck and neck the length of the stretch. After a ding-dong battle down to the line, Lunar Victory emerged victorious by 1 1/4 lengths, getting 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.70 for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
"If I was the connections of Saratoga Snacks, I'd be pretty pleased," Mott remarked of his rival, a Gary Sciacca trainee. "He battled on hard, and he's a pretty doggone good horse. Our horse is a tough horse... They hooked it up a little ways, and our horse is more seasoned and had been the mile and an eighth. Saratoga Snacks will be a horse to contend with in the future, that's for sure."
Juddmonte Farms owns the winner, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown who was bred in New York by William Parsons Jr. and David S. Howe out of the A.P. Indy mare Lunar Colony. He was a $350,000 purchase from the Keeneland September Yearling sale in 2008. Earlier in the day, the international racing operation's top miler Frankel retired undefeated with his 14th straight win, a score in the Quipco Champion Stakes (Eng-I).
"They're still celebrating Frankel, I believe," Mott remarked. "You know what, they pay attention to all of them, so I'm sure they're happy to have this one. Every once in a while they'll buy a yearling at auction, and apparently they liked the looks and the pedigree of this one. I guess he had his chance in England, but fortunately they brought him back to the United States."
Lunar Victory has won six of seven starts in New York since coming to the U.S. at the end of 2011; his only loss was a runner-up finish last time out in the Sept. 23 Promenade All Stakes going a mile at Belmont. Mott said the Nov. 23 Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs could be an option for the gritty runner.
"I'm glad it turned out this way and we'll keep him in training and try him next year," said Mott. "I'm not sure what we'll do next. This is just a long ball—I'm speaking for myself—we might have a look at the Clark. It would be open company and a good race, but we might consider it. I'll discuss it with the connections, and then we'll figure it out."
The Empire Classic victory improved Lunar Victory's overall record to 7-4-2 from 16 starts, with earnings of $425,039.
In other stakes on the card, William Punk Jr.'s Hessonite posted a repeat win in the $175,000 Ticonderoga Stakes for trainer David Donk (VIDEO) , while Chester and Mary Broman Sr.'s Mine Over Matter, fifth in last year's Empire Classic, shortened up to six furlongs to beat Saginaw in the $150,000 Hudson (VIDEO) .
Jimmy Iselin's Willet dominated the $150,000 Iroquois for fillies and mares by 9 1/4 lengths over Miss Valentine (VIDEO) .
Lakland Farm's Unbridled Command extended his winning streak to four in the $175,000 McMahon of Saratoga Mohawk on the grass (VIDEO) .
In the $125,000 stakes for 2-year-olds, Red and Black Stable's Weekend Hideaway took the Bertram Bongard (VIDEO) while Merrylegs Farm's Matchmadeinheaven rallied from 10th to take the Joseph Gimma for fillies (VIDEO) .