Making just his third career start, Army Mule blew away 10 rivals Saturday in the historic Carter H. (G1) at Aqueduct, stamping himself as a serious player in the male sprint division.
Second choice at 2-1 in the $400,000, seven-furlong heat, Army Mule saved all the ground under Joe Bravo, was sent to the lead when a path on the inside opened up turning into the stretch, and dominated from there. The winning margin was 6 1/4 lengths over 9-5 favorite Awesome Slew, and the time of 1:20.94 over a fast track was excellent.
“He was so relaxed and quiet behind horses,” Bravo said. “I was kind of looking to try to get outside because it seemed like the other races were going down the middle of the track. Everybody starting coming outside and they took up those positions and in two jumps, he was able to jump through that hole and go by there, because that’s what good horses do.”
Owned by St Elias Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher, Army Mule paid $6.20. Great Stuff, a 13-1 chance, rallied for third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Awesome Slew.
Army Mule, who boosted his career earnings to $311,400, remains undefeated from three starts. He won his debut by 8 1/2 lengths at Belmont Park last April over 6 1/2 furlongs, but was not seen again until January 31 when he beat entry-level allowance foes at Gulfstream by 7 1/2 lengths.
“The sky’s the limit with him,” Pletcher said. “He’s just a super talented horse and it’s a matter of keeping him happy and healthy and pointing him in the right direction. The way he finished today at seven-eighths, a race like the Met Mile ([G1] on June 9) would certainly make sense and be on the radar.
An $800,000 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic juvenile buy, Army Mule is by Friesan Fire and out of the stakes-winning Crafty Toast, by Crafty Prospector. His second and third dams were the graded winners Give a Toast and Salud, respectively. Multiple Grade 1 hero Our Native also descends from this family.
Pletcher was back in the winner’s circle following National Flag‘s impressive score in the $250,000 Bay Shore (G3), a seven-furlong test for three-year-olds decided in considerably slower time of 1:23.16.
Near the back of the seven-runner field through the first half-mile after a rough beginning, the son of Speightstown burst on the scene late and drew off to win by four lengths over 6-5 favorite Engage. Flavien Prat was aboard.
Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing, National Flag returned $4.90. Engage finished three parts of a length ahead of Aveenu Malcainu.
“I was concerned after the rough start,” Pletcher said. “He had never really been in that position. He got hit pretty hard from both sides and I was afraid at that point. You never know how a horse is going to react from getting bumped that hard in the beginning. It looked like he gathered himself up and Flavien rode a smart race from that point. He didn’t panic and just gave him time to get his legs up and underneath him. He produced and put in a big run down the lane.”
National Flag has now won three of five starts and $237,450. A maiden win over Engage at Saratoga last August was book-ended by a debut seventh at Belmont and a fifth in the Hopeful (G1), his final start at two. He preceded this score with a 2 3/4-length allowance win at Gulfstream on March 2.
“At some point down the road we might stretch him out,” Pletcher said. “We’ll probably look for a one-turn mile next or something like that. We’ll play it by ear and see how he comes out of this.”
The $150,000 Excelsior (G3) was won from off the pace by 7-1 chance Discreet Lover, who recovered from a stumbling start to overtake pacesetter Zanotti inside the eighth pole and draw away to win by 2 1/2 lengths under Manny Franco.
Owned and trained by Uriah St. Lewis, Discreet Lover paid $17.60 and completed nine furlongs in 1:50.45. Zanotti grabbed the place by a neck over Harlan Punch, with 2-1 favorite Control Group fifth.
A Florida-bred son of Repent, Discreet Lover earned his only other stakes win in the $100,000 Swatara at Penn National on Thanksgiving eve last November. He has also placed in eight other stakes.
Discreet Lover had previously been ridden by Jose Flores, the veteran jockey who tragically died from injuries sustained in a spill at Parx Racing on March 19.
“He used to ride this horse all the time,” St. Lewis said. “He rode most of my horses, and he passed away a few weeks ago. He rode this horse Saturday [March 17] in the stakes [Harrison E. Johnson at Laurel], and on Monday he died. He would’ve come up here and rode him today, but when he passed away I asked Angel Cordero [agent for Manny Franco]. I love Jose, he was like a brother to me. I keep saying this is for Jose.”