by J. Keeler Johnson
On a busy afternoon of racing at Belmont Park, three-year-olds who weren’t quite up for running in the Belmont Stakes (G1) had a chance to shine in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes and $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes (G1).
The 1 1/16-mile Easy Goer saw former claimer Majid record his fourth straight victory for trainer Rudy Rodriguez. Under a perfect ride from jockey Luis Saez, the bay son of Shackleford secured an uncontested lead through fractions of :23.70, :47.55 and 1:11.46 before accelerating strongly down the homestretch, running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :30.09 to hold off all challengers and prevail by a length.
Still Dreaming rallied up the inside to edge Grumps Little Tots for second place, but was subsequently disqualified to fourth for interfering with Alwaysmining late in the race.
“The plan coming in was to take the lead,” Saez explained. “In his last race, when he took the lead he was very relaxed. When we came down the stretch he responded. When I saw them coming I just tried to ride hard and thank God we passed the wire first.”
Having handled every class rise so far with aplomb, Majid figures to make the jump into graded company in the near future – perhaps even in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park, where he could meet up with the disqualified Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security. Only time will tell how Majid stacks up against the best of the division – he did receive a perfect trip in the Easy Goer – but it’s hard to knock a lightly-raced horse with a four-race win streak in tow.
“He looked like he was improving over the last couple of races and he ran great today,” Rodriguez said. “He showed heart today. It looked like he started to go to the lead, and he kept his determination so that was good to see he can do that, and hopefully he can keep doing that.”
Later on Belmont’s Saturday card, sprinters took the spotlight in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens, where the late-running Hog Creek Hustle unleashed a powerful rally from the back of the pack to win narrowly.
A fast pace benefited the son of Overanalyze, who competed on the Road to the Kentucky Derby this winter before cutting back in distance. Fast fractions of :21.92 and :44.53 posted by Strike Silver set the stage for Hog Creek Hustle to roll past in the lane and hold off a late challenge from fellow deep closer Nitrous to win by a neck.
After all that, Hog Creek Hustle then had to withstand a stewards’ inquiry into whether he interfered with Mind Control, but the officials let the results stand.
“He didn’t have any speed. I let him fall back and run his own race. When it was time to go I just went around everybody to where he could get some clean running room,” jockey Corey Lanerie explained his ride aboard the winner. “When I turned for home and tried to switch leads, I had no intention of coming over on (Mind Control), but he does that when you try to grab the right rein, he tries to run away from it. I was lucky that they left him up because he was the best horse, but he needs to learn how to stay straight.”
“I was nervous during the inquiry. We’re from Kentucky and came to the Big Apple, so I was a little nervous. It went our way and I think they (stewards) did the right thing,” admitted trainer Vickie Foley. “This is my first Grade 1 win, and what a thrill. He was tough in the paddock, which he always is, and then with the inquiry, it was stressful. But I knew there would be blistering speed in this race, and I knew that’s what we needed. We were going for and hoping for the speed coming back to us. That’s why we thought we’d be perfect in this race and why we came. Corey gave him a good ride, too.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen, who sent out Nitrous, was happy with the way his runner performed.
“Our horse ran a good race,” Asmussen said. “We were concerned about the way the racetrack has been playing today but he’s obviously a much better horse when he settles and then comes home. We’ll see where he goes from here. This was a good step forward for him.”
Hog Creek Hustle entered the Woody Stephens off a runner-up finish in the Pat Day Mile (G3) at Churchill Downs. The colt has thrived since cutting back in distance and has emerged as perhaps the leading three-year-old sprinter in the nation. Races like the Amsterdam Stakes (G2) and the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1) at Saratoga could be major summer targets for Hog Creek Hustle.