Favored at 2-5 in a field of seven older turf horses, Charming Kitten ($2.80) was a 1 1/2-length winner in the two-mile stakes named for the legendary Hall of Fame horseman who passed away last March at the age of 85.
It was the second straight victory in the race for 12-time Championship Meet-leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who took last year's inaugural running with Unitarian.
"It's fun. It's a different kind of race, and it's an honor to win a race named after Mr. Jerkens," Pletcher said. "He's such a legendary guy and a kind man, and a genius horse trainer. I'm honored to win it again."
Charming Kitten broke alertly from post one under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez and settled along the rail in third trailing Roccia d'Oro, who led through easy fractions of 27.12 seconds for the quarter-mile, 54.62 for the half, 1:21.40 for six furlongs and 1:48.03 through one mile, with Xaverian at his right flank.
A 6-year-old son of prolific sire Kitten's Joy and winner of the 1 1/2-mile W. L. McKnight (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream in his previous start Dec. 26, Charming Kitten spotted his rivals from two to six pounds as the 123-pound highweight. Charming Kitten also won the 2014 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes at two miles on the turf.
"I was OK being inside because we wanted to save some ground. My only concern about being inside was if the inner turf was a little bit softer than the other turf course with all the rain we've had," Pletcher said. "I was just hoping he'd handle that. Carrying topweight, it helps when you can save some ground. (Xaverian) fought back. Chuck Simon's horse ran a big race and we had to fight hard to win it."
Velazquez swung Charming Kitten to the outside approaching the stretch and took aim at Xaverian in the lane, catching the 10-1 shot at the eighth pole and surging ahead to win in 3:33.87 over a good turf course.
"It went pretty much like we expected," Velazquez said. "There was only one speed in the race. We had a nice position sitting behind the leader. I waited and waited and when it was time to go, he came out and he was running."
Xaverian was a clear second, 6 3/4 lengths ahead of St. Albans Boy. Roccia d'Oro, Mucho Mas Macho, Matuszak, and Neutronstar completed the order of finish, none of which had attempted the rare distance previously. Charming Kitten won the inaugural two-mile Belmont Gold Cup in 2014.
"I think the biggest key is identifying a horse that wants to go stay that far and you need one that'll turn off early on and just get into a steady gallop," Pletcher said. "You can't have one that's rank or that will pull early. He's already won a two-mile race so once we knew that it was kind of an easy decision to run here."
Pletcher's classmate at the University of Arizona, Simon was thrilled with the effort of Xaverian in his stakes debut. Simon worked nearly four years under Jerkens, known as 'The Chief,' before going out on his own in 1999.
"Before the race I would have been extremely satisfied with that result but after the race it's a little deflating. The winner is just a little better horse," Simon said. "The Chief would have been happy getting a nice check."