Ken and Sarah Ramsey's homebred Big Blue Kitten unleashed his typical late kick on the outside rounding the far turn and held off a late challenge by Slumber and Twilight Eclipse to win the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) in course-record time Saturday, Sept. 26 at Belmont Park.
One of three Hirsch starters trained Chad Brown, Big Blue Kitten was in mid-pack early under Joe Bravo as stablemate Shining Copper led the field through fast fractions until the second turn, at one point leading by 11 lengths before the rest of the field began to close.
Big Blue Kitten, who had made steady progress after being some 17 lengths back, rushed to the lead on the outside rounding the turn and held a three-length lead going into the stretch before being joined by Slumber and Twilight Eclipse late. But Big Blue Kitten held on tenaciously for a three-quarter length triumph.
Sent off as the 5-2 second choice in the field of seven, Big Blue Kitten returned $7 for a $2 win bet. The winner's purse of $360,000 boosted his bankroll to $2,636,830 and his career record stands at 14-8-4 from 29 starts.
The course-record time of 2:23.39 for the 1 1/2 miles on turf was also the fastest 12 furlongs at Belmont Park on any surface, including Secretariat's romp in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The win was the 14th victory in 29 starts for Big Blue Kitten, a 7-year-old son of the Ramsey's stallion Kitten's Joy , whose grade I stakes victories also include the United Nations and Sword Dancer Invitational, both in 2013, and the United Nations at Monmouth Park earlier this year. Previous to the Hirsch, Big Blue Kitten just missed winning the Alrington Million (gr. IT), finishing a neck behind winner The Pizza Man.
The Hirsch was a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" race, earning Big Blue Kitten entry into the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. iT) Oct. 31 at Keeneland.
"I thought they both (Big Blue Kitten and Slumber) ran terrific," said Brown. "Today, Big Blue Kitten got the better of Slumber at a mile and a half. I'm proud of both horses. The race pretty much went the way I expected. Shining Copper has run admirably all summer as the pacemaker for us; nearly won a couple of grade Is. I didn't want to deter from our plan of him being the pacemaker, and we stuck with that plan. He did his job and set up the race for Big Blue Kitten and his stablemate. Maybe with 70 yards to go, I was a little concerned, but he had enough. Very impressive effort today.
"The Breeders' Cup is such a difficult event not only to get to, but to win. We've been very fortunate in the Breeders' Cup. At this point, we're trying to identify horses who are worthy of competing on the world stage, and then, from there, you're extremely lucky if you're able to win a race. So I'm not getting ahead of myself. We're in the process, these last round of preps, of trying to identify horses who belong in the Breeders' Cup. A horse like Big Blue Kitten would be one, and we have a big weekend of racing both here and at Keeneland next weekend."
"He's just such a good horse, so honest and puts you to it all," winning jockey Bravo said. "You're watching the pace, but it's kind of nice to sit back and see the pace unfolding. The pace was sort of 'stop go, stop go' but at the top of the stretch, I said 'go' and he said 'okay.' I had my hands full with him but I thought. 'hey, let them catch us now. When it comes down to it, he's an amazing horse and he deserves to hold a track record. He's done so good that he makes you look good."
"I had a perfect trip," said Irad Ortiz, Jr., runner-up jockey aboard Slumber. "No complaints. I just got beat by the best horse. Big Blue Kitten is a very nice horse. I'm happy for my horse because the last time he got in a lot of trouble and I never really got to ask him to run. He didn't have any trouble today, he got a clear trip and showed that he can run with those horses."