ELMONT, N.Y. -- Ascend never had raced in a graded stakes of any sort, but he was the best horse Saturday at Belmont Park in the Grade 1, $1 million Manhattan Stakes, where he beat the heavily favored Time Test by 1 1/4 lengths.
Time Test had dead aim on the winner in mid-stretch, but it was Ascend who finished fastest. Time Test held second by a neck over Sadler's Joy, who was followed by Beach Patrol, World Approval, Divisidero, Potemkin, Applicator, and Wake Forest.
Sent off at 27-1, Ascend had been pointed to the Manhattan for several weeks by trainer Graham Motion, who was impressed by the gelding's win in the Henry Clark Stakes on April 22 as well as his subsequent training.
"He hasn't done much wrong, this horse," Motion said. "He's always trained well, and obviously he's improved a lot."
Ascend got a well-judged ride from Jose Ortiz, who let Ascend make an early, steady move into a slow pace to get first run on all the closers.
"I don't look at the odds," Ortiz said. "The horse is a very good horse. I trust Motion 100 percent. I really love riding for him. Every time, he comes ready."
Ascend paid $57 to win and, off the slow early splits of 24.60, 50.08, and 1:14.39 set by longshot Applicator, was timed in 1:59.97 for 1 1/4 miles on firm, fast-playing turf. Ascend ran his final quarter-mile in 21.99 seconds, and Time Test, the 7-5 favorite, could not match him.
"When my horse switched leads, I touched him in the back with my whip, and he took off," Ortiz said. "I was very confident the last eighth of a mile."
Ascend raced in fourth in the early stages, but Ortiz, sensing the slow pace, let him move into early contention, and he was second by a head with a quarter-mile left to run. Meanwhile, Time Test, who got the firm course he wants, was pulling hard down the backstretch, eager to be turned loose. Javier Castellano held him around the turn, keeping Time Test in a seemingly ideal spot in fifth, just behind the lead pack. Time Test, campaigning for the first time this year in America, long has carried a reputation, and he appeared poised to sweep on to victory, but after running up to Ascend, Time Test couldn't finish him off.
"There was no pace in the race," Castellano said. "I think that the winner got the jump, and that's what won the race. I expected Beach Patrol to show some speed, but the jockey took him back, and it changed all the strategy."
Sadler's Joy still was seventh at the stretch call and ran well to just miss getting up for third. "They went too slow early, and that really hurt us," said jockey Mike Smith.
Ascend is a 5-year-old gelding owned by his breeder, Stone Farm, and Madaket Stables LLC. He's by Candy Ride and out of the Silver Ghost mare Ghost Dancing, and generally has been, well, ascendant for much of his career. Motion kept Ascend in allowance company until Ascend won a third-level allowance race in October, and when Ascend won the Henry Clark in his 2017 debut, the trainer decided that the horse was ready to step up -- even if most of the betting public failed to see it coming.