Favored Air Support caught front-running Bombaguia in the final yards and got his head in front at the wire to win Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Bowling Green Handicap, the opening-day feature for Belmont Park's 37-day fall meet.
The 4-year-old Smart Strike colt, ridden for the first time by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, tucked in third along the rail as Bombaguia led the tightly grouped field of five through an opening quarter-mile in 26.06 seconds, with the half going in 50.55 and three quarters in 1:14.90. Tipped to the outside as they straightened for home, Air Support caught up with the pacesetter inside the eighth pole and prevailed only after a tough battle to the wire.
“Behind the horses, I'm thinking ‘Oh, he's going to win easy.' Pull him out, ‘Oh, I guess not.' Big surprise!” said Velazquez. “He's competitive, definitely competitive; he just needs to put everything together on his way though.”
Air Support completed the 1 ¼ miles in 2:06.12 over an inner turf course rated “good” as he won for the first time since taking the Grade 2 Virginia Derby more than a year ago.
“I'm pleased with him; it's the first race he's won in a while,” said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who trains Air Support for Stuart S. Janney, III. “When he got up to the horse on the lead – let's give [Bombaguia] some credit, he was on an easy lead and we had to run and catch him, he ran a great race – when we got next to him, he didn't want to run by him when I thought we would. I'm glad he won.”
The 7-5 favorite, Air Support returned $4.90 for a $2 win bet and with the winner's purse of $120,000 has now earned $892,488. Four of his five career victories have come in graded stakes, including the Grade 3 Pilgrim in 2010 and the Grade 3 Transylvania in 2011.
McGaughey, who this year has saddled nine graded stakes winners on the turf, said he was not sure what might be next for Air Support, but mentioned the Grade 2 Red Smith at Aqueduct Racetrack on November 3 and the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita on the same day as possibilities.
Bombaguia, who was making his stakes debut, was 7 ¼ lengths ahead of Brilliant Speed, who in turn was followed by Brujo de Olleros and Newsdad. Main Track Only entrant Redeemed was scratched.
Shug McGaughey, winning trainer of Air Support (No. 1): “I knew it would be a walking race. Johnny said he ran a little spotty. At the three-eighths pole, he said, ‘I'm just gliding along, I got this under control' and when he pulled [Air Support] out, he started looking around. When he got up to the horse on the lead – let's give [Bombaguia] some credit, he was on an easy lead and we had to run and catch him, he ran a great race – when we got next to him, he didn't want to run by him when I thought we would. I'm glad he won. I thought he ran a good race. I'm pleased with him. It's the first race he's won in a while. The field was pretty decent for a five-horse field; he beat Brilliant Speed, and the runner-up was on an easy lead. I don't know yet what's next. There's a race at Keeneland, or the Red Smith [Grade 2, November 3, Aqueduct Racetrack]. I haven't discounted the Breeders' Cup, either. I just have to wait and see.”
John Velazquez, winning jockey aboard Air Support (No. 1): “My horse was going really easy the whole way. I pulled him out at the quarter pole, the other horse [Bombaguia] opened up two lengths on him, and he forgot he was running. When [Edgar] Prado [aboard Bombaguia] started coming out to me, that's when he started getting serious and trying to get competitive. Still, he got next to the other horse and he didn't really put up too much of a fight. I think he's better than that.
“It's funny, because I've been looking all the way back at the way he wins and he always wins by [a small margin]. It's my first time riding him, so I didn't know him very much, but he surprised me that he got to the quarter pole and all of a sudden he was up in the air. Behind the horses, I'm thinking ‘Oh, he's going to win easy.' Pull him out, ‘Oh, I guess not.' Big surprise! He's competitive, definitely competitive; he just needs to put everything together on his way though. I'll talk to Shug, maybe little blinkers just to make him focus on what he needs to do. He's behind horses, he's a different horse. You put him outside of the horses, he forgets that he's running.”
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