Phipps Stables' homebred Happy Hunting won his first stakes try Saturday as the favorite against a group of veteran campaigners in the $110,000 Aqueduct Handicap (gr. III).
The 5-year-old Seeking the Gold
horse dug in after taking the lead in upper stretch from the pacesetter Mr. Whitestone and held on for a one-length win as the 5-2 choice in a time of 1:44 2/5 in the 1 1/16-mile test on the Aqueduct inner track.
But it was the performance of runner-up Evening Attire that stole the show. Left at the gate in his 47th career start, the 8-year-old Black Tie Affair
gelding trailed by 18 1/2 lengths after a quarter-mile but made up ground on the backstretch and continued to close. Racing four wide into the stretch under Jose Santos, Evening Attire captured the runner-up spot by a head over Mr. Whitestone.
"What are you going to do?" said trainer Pat Kelly of Evening Attire, who won the Aqueduct in 2002. "We've been working with him at the gate. He's old and he does what he wants to do. You just can't give these horses a head start. He finished up great."
Having earned more than $2.5 million in his career with his $22,000 share Saturday, Evening Attire has become settled in his ways, according to Santos, who is approaching 4,000 career victories.
"Nothing happens in the gate, he just likes the gate too much," Santos said. "He ran a good race. He was very game today. He's got a bad habit now. If he breaks with the bunch, probably he wins."
It is hard to ignore the effort of the victorious Happy Hunting, who improved his career record to 5-1-2 from nine starts. The winning share of $66,000 increased his earnings to $203,024. The chestnut will likely head to Gulfstream Park in pursuit of bigger game.
The lightly raced Happy Hunting is out of the grade I winner Furlough, by Easy Goer.
"This is five out of six and four in a row," said Earl "Buzz" Tenney, assistant to trainer Shug McGaughey. "Not too many horses do that. He's certainly going the right way; it just took him a little while to get going."
Happy Hunting cracked a hind cannon bone as a 3-year-old and didn't begin racing until last June. He was coming off a 1 1/4-length win in an optional claiming/allowance race on the inner track six weeks ago.
Mr. Whitestone made the initial lead but, by the time they reached the clubhouse turn, Happy Hunting had used his rail post to his advantage and saved ground inside. Allowing Mr. Whitestone to dictate a pace of :23 1/5; :47 2/5 and 1:12 2/5, jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. brought Happy Hunting around for the stretch run.
Those two battled on to the wire, as Evening Attire, carrying top weight of 118 pounds (four more than the winner) continued his improbable rally. Evening Attire got up in time to head Mr. Whitestone and jockey Charles Lopez for the place.
Happy Hunting returned $7.10, $4.10, and $3, combining with Evening Attire ($3.70, $2.70) for a $34.20 exacta. Mr. Whitestone was $3.70 to show.
Colita, Broad Acres, Knox, Spite the Devil, and Sinister G trailed.