Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin thought odds-on choice Grasshopper could be vulnerable running a one-turn mile in the $109,100 Westchester Handicap (gr. III) (VIDEO) to open Belmont Park's spring/summer meet April 30, and he was proved correct when his Divine Park swept to a five-length victory.
Under a confident ride by jockey Alan Garcia, Divine Park raced in third behind Saint Daimon’s quick pace of :22.45, :44.65 and 1:09.14, before taking charge in upper stretch. He won without a challenge from Grasshopper, who finished willingly after rallying five wide on the turn but was not a threat.
Divine Park clocked an excellent time of 1:32.74 on the fast main track. The track mark of 1:32.24 was established by Najran in 2003.
“He really wanted to go that fast,” Garcia said. “In the early part, he was so relaxed and I was so confident. When I asked him, he was just perfect.”
It was the fifth win in seven starts for the 4-year-old Chester House colt who had excuses in his two losses, the Malibu (gr. I) at Santa Anita last December and the General George (gr. II) at Laurel on Feb. 18.
“He’s a very nice horse,” said McLaughlin. “We’ve always liked him a lot. In the Malibu, he was coming off an eight-month layoff and drew the 14-hole and it wasn’t that bad of a race. In Laurel, he broke through gate. The next two races, however, are great.”
Divine Park earned $65,460 for owner James J. Barry and has now banked $247,935 in his career.
McLaughlin has tentatively set the $600,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at a mile on Belmont's sweeping oval Memorial Day, May 26, as the next stop for Divine Park.
“The Met Mile is a little quick back for us,” McLaughlin said, “but it is hard to pass off a race like this.”
Sent off as the second choice, Divine Park paid $7.90, $3.40 and $2.40. Grasshopper, the 3-5 favorite in the field of six, returned $2.40 and $2.10 with Robby Albarado aboard. It was three-quarters of a length to Sightseeing, $2.40 to show, with Edgar Prado along. Miner’s Lamp Mr. Umphrey, and Saint Daimon completed the order.
Grasshopper has now run second in four of his past five starts, a string that started with a half-length loss to Street Sense at Saratoga in last August’s Travers (gr. I).
“I thought he ran OK his first time going a mile,” said trainer Neil Howard. “I thought he ran well."
Added Albarado, “They ran 1:32; he’s not that fast, today.”
Trainer Billy Turner saddled three winners in a row winning the fourth with Cloud Nine ($18.60); the fifth with Drift King ($66) and the sixth with Just Zip It ($7.80). Jockey Jose Espinoza rode Cloud Nine and Just Zip It, while newcomer Luca Panici rode Drift King.
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