Corms Racing Stable and R.A. Hill Stable's Divine Miss Grey provided jockey Manny Franco with his fourth of five wins on the card while successfully defending her title in Sunday's $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational, a one-turn mile for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Trained by Danny Gargan, the 5-year-old Divine Park chestnut was making her first start since a runner-up effort on November 22 at Churchill Downs in the Grade 2 Fall City Handicap.
The talented chestnut, who went gate-to-wire for a 6 ¾-length score last year in the Heavenly Prize, used a similar strategy on Sunday commanding the lead from Road to Victory to mark the opening quarter-mile in 23.81 seconds over a sloppy and sealed main track.
Divine Miss Grey maintained her lead into the turn with Road to Victory on her flank and Forever Liesl advancing up the rail through a half-mile in 47.52. Split Time made a menacing move late in the turn to pressure the leader, but Divine Miss Grey kept finding more to secure a three-length victory in a final running time of 1:37.32.
The New York-bred Split Time, who arrived at the Heavenly Prize from a convincing win in the restricted Bay Ridge, stayed on strong to complete the exacta 6 ¼-lengths in front of Forever Liesl.
Midnight Disguise, Road to Victory and Sara Street, who jumped at the break and trailed throughout, completed the order of finish. Sower was scratched.
Franco said he felt confident he could control the pace following the scratch of Sower.
“When I saw that the one horse [Sower] scratched, I said, 'I'm going to play it by ear, so if my filly breaks good, and nobody wants to go, I'm going to take it,' and that's what I did. I know she's fast and she always gives me all she has. She proved that today,” said Franco.
The ultra-consistent Divine Miss Grey hit the board in all but one start last year, posting a record of five wins, three seconds and one third highlighted by a victory in the Grade 2 Chilukki at Churchill Downs.
“This is a horse that you just have to have so much respect for. She has so much heart and she runs every time,” said Randy Hill, owner of R.A. Hill Stable. “She's been off three months and when the one horse scratched [No. 1, Sower] that made me happy. I thought we needed the lead and I know Manny knew how to ride the horse. When we went out front and got the lead in 23 [seconds], I was feeling pretty good. When we turned for home all I kept saying was 'Manny break their heart.' Manny rode a perfect race and she's a great horse, she really is.”
Bred in Kentucky by Brereton C. Jones, Divine Miss Grey made her seasonal debut a winning one, banking $82,500 in victory while improving her record to 12-6-1 from 24 career starts. She paid $4.30 as the even-money mutuel favorite.
Franco, who is leading the Aqueduct winter meet with 81 wins, scored with five of his eight mounts on Sunday's nine-race card.
The veteran rider won the day's second race with Sweet August Lady [$3.10] by a widening 10 lengths, and then doubled up in the third race with Divine Order [$3.40].
In the fifth race, Franco rallied Jump for Joy [$10.40] to a smart score for his highest priced win on the card.
After taking the feature with Divine Miss Grey, Franco completed the late double with a front-running effort aboard Raging Fire [$9.40] to conclude a successful day at the races.
“It means a lot because you're doing something good,” said Franco. “The horses are running good for you, and I just want to say thank you to the trainers and owners that keep their trust in me and let me ride their horses.”
Live racing resumes on Friday at the Big A with a nine-race card. First post is 1:30 p.m.
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