Neptune's Storm, expertly handled by Ricardo Santana, Jr., stalked and pounced his way to victory in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Hill Prince, a nine-furlong test for sophomores on the firm inner turf at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
Trained by Richard Baltas for owners John Rochfort, Saul Gevertz, Lynn Gitomer, Mike Goetz, Michael Nentwig, and Daniel Weiner, Neptune's Storm, racing with blinkers off, tracked the early foot of A Thread of Blue to the top of the lane before punching home a three-quarter length winner.
The Hill Prince was one of five stakes events on the opening day of the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Racing Festival, which features four “Win and You're In” qualifiers, including the Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne, where the winner will secure a spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In addition to the Hill Prince, Saturday's undercard included the Grade 1, $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, won by Arklow; the Grade 3, $150,000 Matron for juvenile fillies, won by Alms; and the $150,000 Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational, captured by Final Frontier.
On Sunday, three Breeders' Cup spots will be on the line, as the Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl and the Grade 1, $400,000 Frizette will award the winners an all-fees-paid berth into the Filly & Mare Turf and Juvenile Fillies divisions, respectively. The Grade 3, $150,000 Futurity for 2-year-olds on the turf will award a spot in the Juvenile Turf Sprint to the winner.
Graded stakes-winner A Thread of Blue, with Luis Saez up, led the nine-horse field through splits of 25.48, 50.92 and 1:15.20 as Neptune's Storm stalked comfortably with Standard Deviation and Henley's Joy tracking in tandem from third and fourth respectively.
Into the far turn, Santana, Jr. urged Neptune's Storm outside of A Thread of Blue for racing room and sailed home to a smart score in a final time of 1:49.74. A Thread of Blue held second by a nose over Standard Deviation with Henley's Joy in fourth. Rounding out the order of finish were Digital Age, Seismic Wave, Bourbon War, Uncle Benny and Taos.
Santana, Jr. was full of praise for the ultra-consistent Neptune's Storm.
“I was just a passenger today. He put himself in a position that he wanted,” said Santana, Hr. “That horse is so classy and he knows how to win. He did everything by himself, to be honest. Turning for home, I knew I had plenty of horse and I knew I just had to wait. This stretch is so long, so I knew I could wait until the right moment. He gave me a nice, strong kick and finish to get home.”
Saez offered no excuses for the hard-trying A Thread of Blue, who he had guided to important victories in the Grade 3 Palm Beach in March at Gulfstream Park and the $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational, second leg of the Turf Trinity, in August.
“It was a perfect trip. He got beat, that's all,” said Saez. “The distance was all right. It's horse racing. Today, he got beat. Hopefully, next time he'll be better. It was a nice trip. He was relaxed.”
Neptune's Storm arrived at the Hill Prince with a ledger that included stakes wins at Santa Anita in the Singletary and Cinema along with graded stakes placings at Del Mar after running second in the Grade 3 La Jolla and third last out in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby.
Co-owner John Rochfort said Neptune's Storm could have won both his graded stakes efforts at Del Mar.
“He deserved it today. He was unlucky his last two races,” said Rochfort. “All the credit has to go to Richie Baltas and his team. He has a great staff. They've done a great job with him. After the last race, they changed things up and got the horse to relax a bit and it showed today. He just ran great. We took the blinkers off and trained him that way for a few weeks and he just ran a fantastic race today.”
Bred in Kentucky by Tracy Farmer, Neptune's Storm banked $220,000 in victory while improving his record to 5-2-3 from 12 starts. He paid $22.40 for a $2 win ticket.
The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Racing Festival concludes on Sunday at Belmont with a 10-race card which also features a mandatory payout of the Empire 6 beginning in Race 5. First post is 12:45 p.m.
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