The first graded stakes win for Melnyk Racing Stable's $2.8 million colt Harlington was a long time in coming, but the 4-year-old got the job done while fully extended for John Velazquez to win the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) over a strong field.
The son of Unbridled took command with a bold move in the stretch but was nearly tagged at the wire by 25-1 shot Contante, who closed spectacularly from far back to miss by a neck in the 1 3/16-mile main track test.
The final time was 1:55.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Harlington has won five of six starts After being injured in last year's Risen Star (gr. III), Harlington now appears ready to make a return on his investment. He earned $180,000 for the victory.
It's No Joke set the pace much of the way – :23 1/5, :46 2/5 and 1:10 3/5 – and when he came off the rail a bit at the head of the stretch, Harlington and Velazquez were able to squeeze through. Harlington appeared to weary a bit late, and the Argentine-bred Contante came flying late for Shaun Bridgmohan. It's No Joke and Mark Guidry held third, three-quarters of a length behind the runner-up.
"I had the rail, and I thought to myself that I couldn't ask for a better trip," Velazquez said. "Then he moved for me, but when we got to the lead, he kind of started playing around, so I had to take a hold of him a little bit and shake him up. Then he was able to hold on."
"With four horses across the track, you've got to take that chance when it comes (go inside), but I don't think he's ever been to the lead that soon, and he didn't know what to do when he got there. It's just a sign of how enormously talented he is that he's able to race like this without totally focusing. He's come a long way, but he's still not battle tested. That was my concern going against horses who had been in the Triple Crown, but a race like this should help."
Suave, the 5-2 favorite, faded after pressing the pace on the outside before tiring in the stretch. "He pinned his ears turning for home and just didn't have it today," trainer Paul McGee said of the favorite.
It was another disappointing effort by Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner who checked in seventh after showing brief speed to the far turn on the extreme outside.
"It was probably too much pressure on him," trainer Barclay Tagg said of the outside trip. "I wish I had a more definitive answer. Maybe he's just not as good as he was."
Harlington, who boosted his earnings to $278,400, paid $7.40, $4.80, and $3.60. Contante returned $17.80 and $10.20. It's No Joke was $6.20 to show.
Who's Crying Now, Andromeda's Hero, Suave, Funny Cide, and Sun King rounded out the finish.