JOE HIRSCH TURF CLASSIC | PURSE: $490,000 | GRADE 1 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | 1 1/2 MILES (TURF)
Cape Blanco shipped across the pond from Ireland for third time since this summer to collect a grade I victory, barely outlasting a determined Dean's Kitten by a nose in the Grade 1, $490,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park Oct. 1.
On a yielding Widener Turf Course, odds-on choice Cape Blanco struggled with the going after taking the lead approaching the three-eighths pole, but got the job done under much urging from jockey Jamie Spencer.
Aidan O'Brien trains Cape Blanco, a 4-year-old Galileo colt, for owners Mrs. Fitriani Hay, Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Magnier, and Michael Tabor. Cape Blanco won the Man o' War Stakes over Belmont's inner turf course July 9 and returned to America a month later to capture the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.
The Turf Classic is a "Win and You're In" race for the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Turf. Cape Blanco had already earned a starting berth in the Nov. 5 race at Churchill Downs with his victory in the Arlington Million.
Dean's Kitten, the longest shot in the field at odds of 14-1, just missed in a superb effort while finishing well in front of third-place Grassy. Just five contested the 1 1/2-mile event, which was timed in a slow 2:36.61 under taxing conditions.
Bred in Ireland by Jack Ronan and Des Vere Hunt Farm, Cape Blanco is out of the Presidium mare Laurel Delight. Though not considered of the highest caliber among the current crop of European competitors, the chestnut won both the Irish Derby (Ire-I) and Irish Champion Stakes last year.
Cape Blanco would obviously be a major contender in the Breeders' Cup Turf if he starts.
"I'd imagine that will be the drill, but they'll bring him home and Aidan will see how he comes out of the race and Aidan will decide," said Ashford Stud's Charlie O'Connor, representing the winning owners. "He's done just another wonderful training job, and Jamie gave him a great ride under difficult conditions."
Cape Blanco broke from the rail in the Turf Classic but quickly switched off the hedge as Mission Approved set off at a galloping tempo on the front end. With Dean's Kitten tracking them in third, Mission Approved led Cape Blanco through a half-mile in a glacial :52.42 and a mile in 1:44.92. Grassy raced in fourth as second choice Winchester, the defending Turf Classic champion, brought up the rear.
Rounding the final turn, Cape Blanco edged past the front-runner and appeared headed for certain victory at the head of the stretch as Dean's Kitten and Grassy tried to keep up. Cape Blanco still led by 1 1/2 lengths at mid-stretch but began drifting out under left-handed urging. The margin continued to dwindle in the closing strides as a relentless Dean's Kitten kept closing on the outside for Ramon Dominguez. Cape Blanco won it on a final bob of the head.
"He's a tenacious horse and tries very hard," Spencer said. "The ground was very testing. It was sticky. His heart won it in the end. Whenever you ask him, he always finds more. I was glad to win, but the ground was totally against this horse. He wasn't handling the surface."
"Turning for home, I tested the winner and just got unlucky on the head-bob," Dominguez said. "I thought I had a good chance to get up; I knew it was very close."
It was 8 3/4 lengths back to Grassy, ridden by John Velazquez. Mission Approved was fourth while Winchester trailed throughout.
Cape Blanco earned $300,000 for his ninth lifetime victory in 15 starts, extending his career earnings to $3,855,665.
Under equal weights of 126 pounds, Cape Blanco paid $3.20, $2.40, $2.10 as the 3-5 pick. Dean's Kitten, third in the Arlington Million in his last start while 2 3/4 lengths behind Cape Blanco Aug. 13, returned $5.80 and $3.30. The exacta was worth $17.20. Grassy, winner of the Bowling Green Handicap at Belmont Sept. 10, paid $3.20 to show.
"He's just getting better and better," trainer Mike Maker said of the runner-up. "Obviously, he ran a great race in the Arlington Million, and ran a great race today. Maybe we'll get them at Churchill. We'll go on to the Breeders' Cup Turf."
Dual Grade 1 winner Teaks North was scratched by trainer Justin Sallusto.