Gil Johnston’s Awesome Pearl, overlooked at 35-to-1 in the betting, surged through Saratoga Race Course’s stretch and won a down-to-the-wire battle with Kingdom in last Thursday’s $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes.
Ridden by apprentice jockey Kieran Norris, Awesome Pearl prevailed by a nose after the deep-stretch battle with The Fields Stable’s Kingdom. Rock Ford Stables’ Sporty finished third, 6 1/4 lengths farther back, and Bill Pape’s Bluegrass Summer, the 2013 novice champion, was fourth in a talent-packed field of 10.
Trained by Richard Valentine, Awesome Pearl ran the Jonathan Kiser’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:48.26 on a firm inner turf course. He paid $72 to win and triggered a $744 exacta with Kingdom, trained by Elizabeth Voss Murray.
The attraction of a talented young newcomer to U.S. racing and hot jockey Ross Geraghty led Saratoga bettors to make Irv Naylor’s Saint Jerome the 2.30-to-1 favorite off an impressive record in England. The four-year-old Irish-bred gelding went right to the lead under Geraghty and raced well ahead of the pack.
He appeared to be well within himself for more than 1 1/2 miles but slowed suddenly near the end of the final run down Saratoga’s backstretch. Top Striker, owned by Camden’s Sue Sensor and trained by Camden’s Arch Kingsley, had been at the front of Saint Jerome’s pursuers and took the lead under leading jockey Willie McCarthy.
Entering the stretch, Carolina Cup winner Top Striker began to tire and jumped the last fence poorly, allowing his pursuers to surge past him. Within the next several strides, Kingdom and Awesome Pearl separated themselves from the rest of the field and battled to the finish line. Kingdom, ridden by Gus Dahl, appeared to have the advantage on the outside, but Norris pushed Awesome Pearl forward to win the head bob.
A 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding, Awesome Pearl raced overseas with trainer Sir Mark Prescott and was returned to the United States for the 2013 steeplechase season. He won his maiden victory at the International Gold Cup meet in Virginia and then won an optional allowance hurdle at the Montpelier Hunt Races on Nov. 2.
He began the current season with a second-place finish in the $50,000 Queen’s Cup MPC ’Chase for novices on April 26 and then was a distant sixth in the $75,000 Marcellus Frost Novice Stakes at Nashville’s Iroquois Steeplechase on May 10.
“His run in the Queens Cup was huge. I was very, very proud of him,” Valentine said. “Then, I probably ran him back a little quickly. It was nice to be in a photo with [Kingdom]; Elizabeth Voss has done such a wonderful job taking over for her father [the late Tom Voss]. I thought this race might be a little too short for Awesome Pearl, actually. We hope to see him again at the end of the meet here.”
Norris, who collected his first Saratoga victory, said Awesome Pearl had to adapt to the inner turf course. “He’s more of a hunt-meet horse who likes a mile-and-a-half track, not seven furlong,” last year’s champion apprentice jockey said. “It took him a while to adjust to the tightness of the track, but the farther we got into the race, the better he got. I was stuck in traffic, and once I got an opening I let him go. He just went away from me. He’s a very versatile horse, but I didn’t expect him to win the way he did today.”
Rudyard K rolls to win: Making his first start in the colors of Armata Stable, Rudyard K moved to the lead leaving Saratoga Race Course’s final turn, opened a clear advantage at the final fence, and drew away to a 5 1/4-length victory in a $65,000 allowance hurdle that kicked off Saratoga’s rich schedule of steeplechase races on Wednesday, July 23.
Andre Brewster’s Selection Sunday finished second, and Gil Johnston’s Syros collected third money. Both are trained by Jack Fisher. The Elkstone Group’s Albany Road, who led through the middle portions of the race, finished fourth.
Favored at 2.45-to-1, Rudyard K paid $6.90 to win after running the allowance hurdle’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:46.90 on a firm inner turf course.
Geraghty continued his hot riding streak with a savvy ride aboard Rudyard K, a five-year-old Ohio-bred. Beginning with the Fair Hill Races on May 24, Geraghty has won eight of the 12 races run over fences.
Rudyard K was making his first start for trainer Todd Wyatt after good second-place finishes in the Dogwood Classic allowance hurdle at Colonial Downs on April 5 and the $75,000 Marcellus Frost.
Bruce Smart’s Orchestra Leader went to the lead at the start, and Geraghty tucked Rudyard K on the hedge for the first run through Saratoga’s stretch. Albany Road tugged Robbie Walsh to the lead after a mile, and Geraghty positioned Rudyard K to challenge on the final run down the backstretch.
Selection Sunday, well back early under leading rider McCarthy, advanced into a contending position as the field entered the final turn. The three leaders separated themselves from the rest of the field on the turn, and Rudyard K gained the lead from Albany Road entering the stretch.