The new game plan worked to perfection Sept. 29, as The Leopard went gate-to-wire under jockey John Velazquez, taking the 1 1/16-mile event by 2 3/4 lengths to score his first stakes win.
The victory may have earned The Leopard a trip to the inaugural $1-million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, to be run at nine furlongs Oct. 26 at Monmouth Park.
Bred in Kentucky by Eagle Holdings, The Leopard, out of Moon Safari, came into The Pilgrim with three lifetime starts, including a disappointing fifth-place effort in the seven-furlong Futurity Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Sept. 15. His lone win was a half-length score in a maiden special weight at Saratoga in August.
“We were looking to find out about the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf,” Pletcher said. “We had to run him back a little sooner than we wanted to, just to see where we were. We thought he was a little better colt than what he showed in the Futurity, and he’s got so much turf in his pedigree.
“We worked him last week with Red Giant, who won the Virginia Derby (gr. IIT), and they worked head-and-head. The fractions were very realistic for him. The impressive part was the way he finished. He finished the last quarter in :22; that’s what we were looking for.”
Owned by Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Mangier and Michael Tabor, The Leopard used the inside post to take an immediate lead and went very easily through fractions of :24.82, :49.17 and 1:13.89. At the top of the stretch he had a one-length lead on He Aint Easy, the only of the five challengers within striking distance. But The Leopard responded emphatically when urged by Velazquez in deep stretch, pulling away with every stride.
Going off as a 4-5 favorite, The Leopard paid $3.60 to win. His final time was 1:41.61 on a firm turf.
“He relaxed himself; I didn’t have to do much,” Velazquez said. “We got to the quarter-pole, I showed him the whip, spanked him, and he came home real nice.”