A Chad Brown-trained entrant making his stakes debut off a victory gave the conditioner the win on Friday at Saratoga Race Course. But instead of even-money favorite Looking At Bikinis earning a trip to the winner's circle, it was 4-1 selection Highest Honors going last-to-first and fending off Endorsed in the final furlong to capture the 11th running of the $100,000 Curlin for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles.
Looking At Bikinis, who entered 2-for-2, led the six-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in 24.23 seconds and the half in 49.36 on the muddy and sealed main track with Rowayton in close pursuit. Highest Honors stayed at the back of the pack under jockey Jose Ortiz's patient ride, responding gamely by moving up on the outside around the far turn.
Highest Honors maintained the surge entering the straightaway, staying four-wide with Endorsed, Rowayton and stablemate Looking At Bikinis to his inside. Both Highest Honors and Endorsed ran stride-for-stride near the middle of the track before the Tapit colt kicked away in deep stretch, hitting the wire in 1:52.27 for a 1 ½-length victory.
“I thought this horse was doing really well and I thought Looking At Bikinis would be on the lead,” Brown said. “I was a little disappointed that he [Looking At Bikinis] got tired when he did, turning for home, but he fought on bravely and still finished third.
“Today's day was for Highest Honors,” he added. “He made that big sweeping move and we thought he would get a mile and an eighth in his first time [going] two turns and it looks like even a little more distance won't hurt him.”
Highest Honors, owned by W.S. Farish, returned $10.20 on a $2 win wager. He nearly doubled his career earnings to $114,800, improving to 2-for-3 after he broke his maiden at second asking in a 1 1/16-mile route on June 1 at Belmont. The Kentucky homebred has stretched out with each race, having run second by a neck to Winning Number at 6 ½ furlongs on April 20 at Keeneland.
“I was on the outside and Joe [Bravo] broke really good on Endorsed. So, I decided to take back instead of being four-wide into the first turn. I thought, 'I'll take back right away and drop in,'” said Ortiz, who won three races on Friday and has been aboard for every Highest Honors start. “On the backside, there wasn't a lot going on. It was a slow pace, but the track hasn't been playing fast today.
“I just tried to keep him comfortable going a mile and an eighth for the first time,” he continued. “I had a lot of horse by the five-eighths pole and I smooched at him a little bit with a half-mile [remaining] and I went around Joe by the three-eighths pole and he was moving beautiful.”
Brown said the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 24 could be a possibility for his next spot.
“It's a race we've been thinking about for a long time, knowing the horse wasn't going to get on the Derby trail early,” Brown said. “He had some problems as a 2-year-old, and he got started late this year. We always thought he was very talented and the Travers was the dream.”
Endorsed, who won two of his first three starts sandwiched between a sixth-place in the Grade 1 Champagne in October at Belmont, finished five lengths clear of Looking At Bikinis for second for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
“I'm really proud of the big guy,” said Endorsed jockey Joe Bravo. “It was his first time going a mile and an eighth after a six-furlong race and he fought. It was a big question if he would be able to step up to this level or not, and look what he did. He fought all the way down the lane. I can't wait to see his next race.”
Looking At Bikinis debuted a 3 ½-length winner in September at Belmont before starting his sophomore campaign with a half-length score in a one-mile allowance race on June 27 at the same track. The Lookin At Lucky colt finished a neck ahead of Rowayton for third.
“[He] was training really well and got away to an easy lead,” Brown said. “He didn't really have an excuse, so I'll just evaluate exiting the race to see maybe how much the moisture in the track bothered him or the fact that he was on the lead. Maybe with a different trip or different tactics, he can redeem himself. Whether that's the Travers or not, I'm not sure.”
Intrepid Heart and Direct Order completed the order of finish.
Cairo Cat, Grumps Little Tots and Mo Gotcha were scratched.
The Curlin is named for the 2014 Hall of Fame inductee who won four Eclipse Awards, including two for Horse of the Year, starting in 2007 in a campaign in which he won the Preakness, ran third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes in addition to capturing the Breeders' Cup Classic against older horses, garnering Top 3-year-old Colt honors as well. Curlin was also the Horse of the Year and Champion Older Horse for 2008 for fellow Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen after winning the Group 1 Dubai World Cup, the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
Live racing will resume on Saturday with a 12-race card that includes three graded stakes, headlined by the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy for 3-year-olds in Race 11, as well as the Grade 1, $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in Race 9 and the Grade 2, $250,000 Bowling Green on the inner turf in Race 10. First post is 1 p.m. Eastern.
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