Relentless Saratoga County reached the wire first in his final jump over a stubborn Don Six to win his third straight race in the $200,000 General George Handicap (gr. II) at Laurel Park Monday.
Saratoga County, who had lost eight consecutive races for trainer George Weaver before turning things around in November, needed every inch of the seven-furlong event as he was fully extended to prevail over the pacesetting Don Six, the 9-5 favorite, by a nose. The final time was 1:23 2/5.
Gators N Bears finished furiously to be third, a half-length behind, with California invader Taste of Paradise a closing fourth.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Saratoga County was in a stalking position as Don Six and Mike Luzzi blitzed away from the pack soon after the start and maintained a five-length advantage going into the turn.
Though an expected pace battle never materialized, Don Six, who has just one win from seven starts at seven panels, set fractions of :22 1/5, :44 4/5 and 1:10 1/5 before losing his edge close to home.
"That was a good horse race," said Luzzi. "(Don Six) tried hard but seven-eighths is tough for him. It is a long run to the turn and he was a tad eager. But he did relax and kicked when I asked him. He just couldn't hold off the winner. We got beat by a decent horse."
The 4-year-old colt Saratoga County, drifting out while racing in the center of the track, appeared to have Don Six's measure in mid-stretch, but the speedy frontrunner wasn't done. The pair battled every step to the wire with Saratoga County finally getting up in an exciting finish. Saratoga County carried 114 pounds, four pounds less than the co-highweights, Don Six and Gators N Bears.
"I thought at the quarter pole I had (Don Six) but he came back and I thought I had lost my race," Castellano said. "I kept after my horse and at the finish line I was in front."
After winning the Gotham (gr. III) in March, Saratoga County, a son of Valid Expectations
, sustained eight straight losses – including five in graded stakes – before taking a Churchill Downs allowance race Nov. 27. He followed that with a 2 1/2-length win over Limehouse in the Mr. Prospector (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park Jan. 8.
"He's always been a pretty nice horse. His form has stepped up a notch over the last three races," Weaver said. "He's never been worse than fourth in his life while running against some of the best horses in the country. I'm proud that he's been able to reel off three victories against this caliber of competition."
Saratoga County improved his record to 5-4-1 in 16 lifetime starts with earnings of $446,590 for owner Evelyn M. Pollard. Round Table LLC bred the bay, who is out of the Grub broodmare Grub's Dancer, in Kentucky.
The 5-2 second choice in the field of nine, Saratoga County paid $7, $3.60 and $2.40. Don Six, who was chasing his third straight victory as well, returned $3.60 and $2.40.
The multiple stakes-winning Gators N Bears, who was ridden by Ramon Dominguez, fell back on the turn and altered course at the eighth pole but finished gamely. Gators N Bears was worth $2.40 to show.
"It is disappointing we couldn't get it done," Dominguez said. "Around the three-eighths pole he didn't seem to like being between horses but once the winner cleared us my horse really got running. He kicked into another gear down the lane and with a few more jumps I think we would have gotten up."
After Taste of Paradise came Unforgettable Max, Houston's Prayer, Bocca Al Lup, New York Hero and Private Horde.