While the second half of 2016 was hard on this year's classic winners, it has served to showcase the late-blooming brilliance of some upstart members of the sophomore ranks.
Paul Pompa Jr.'s Connect added to an already banner year for trainer Chad Brown as he engaged in a thrilling stretch duel with Divining Rod and just got his head down at the wire to win the $500,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack Nov. 26.
Connect was making his first start since upsetting the Sept. 24 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) field, and the results of that day have been flattered massively over the last 24 hours. Gun Runner, second behind Connect in the $1.25 million test at Parx Racing, scored his first grade I win with a triumph over older males in the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (gr. I) at Churchill Downs while Connect validated his prior form with a gritty effort against elders in his own right.
For all the knocks the 3-year-old class has taken in the wake of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Nyquist , Preakness Stakes (gr. I) hero Exaggerator , and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victor Creator all being retired prior to this year's Breeders' Cup, it has been the sophomores stepping up of late on the big stage—most notably with Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner Arrogate taking down champion California Chrome in the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
"We've always thought a lot of this horse, and I can't say enough about Paul Pompa, the owner," said Brown, who is on pace to earn his first Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer. "He was so patient with this horse. Every time there was a little set back with this horse or some unfortunate news, although never anything terrible, Paul took it right in stride and said, 'We know we have a good one. Let's take it right in stride and do right by the horse and he'll do right by us.' I appreciate very much the amount of time he's allowed me to work with this horse. It's paid off."
Patience has been key for Connect as the dark bay colt only ran once as a juvenile and didn't resurface until breaking his maiden at Belmont Park this May. He fittingly captured the July 29 Curlin Stakes in his fourth start before finishing sixth in the Travers in what was his first try against graded stakes company.
Connect has proven to be a quick learner since this summer, as he demonstrated during his Cigar Mile triumph. Sent off as the 3-2 favorite, Connect rated in an outside path in fifth down the backstretch under Javier Castellano with Divining Rod just in front of him as Anchor Down was pressed by Threefiveindia through fractions :23.31 and :46.44.
As the two on the front end began to weaken on the final turn, Connect surged up four wide simultaneously with Divining Rod to his inside and that pair proceeded to match strides to the line with Connect getting the bob on the wire.
Final time for the eight-furlong test was 1:35.34 over a fast track.
"They went pretty quick and started backing up and every time I asked him, he responded every step of the way," Castellano said. "I liked the way he finished. He's a good horse. He fought back. I'm so proud of the way he did it today."
Divining Rod was making his fourth start since returning from injury and, though he just missed earning his first grade I win, the 4-year-old provided a milestone for his sire Tapit as his $100,000 second place earnings brought the Gainesway stallion over his single-season progeny earnings mark for a third straight year.
"I don't really think anything could have made a difference," said Arnaud Delacour, trainer of Divining Rod. "I think everything went pretty much our way. We had good position, we started at the same time as Connect. We fought all the way down the stretch. I don't see any excuse."
Bred in Kentucky by Fox Straus, Connect improved his record to five wins from seven starts and $1,250,000 in earnings.
"I was a little concerned because this horse hadn't had a race under his belt since the Pennsylvania Derby, but I know how much heart he has and how competitive he is," Brown said. "He really showed a lot of heart today. It's very rewarding to have a horse who shows you so much, especially as he was an unrated 2-year-old. Beating older horses in a race like this is a very high mark on his resume."