Artest has almost as many starts at Saratoga Race Course this year as jockey John Velazquez.
By virtue of a win in the $100,000 Quick Call on Thursday, they have the same number of victories at the meet.
Velazquez returned from a broken collarbone he suffered June 16 at Churchill Downs to ride Wednesday in two races. His lone race Thursday was the Quick Call aboard Artest.
Artest ran in the first race on opening day and was a distant seventh. He ran right back for trainer Michelle Nihei and owner Dennis Narlinger six days later.
“Obviously, he liked it today, so he didn’t care,” Velazquez said. “We were concerned, a little bit, coming back a little bit too soon. But she said, ‘You know what, he didn’t do enough in the race, so might as well let him do it today.’ ”
The 51⁄2-furlong turf race for 3-year-olds started with Gentlemans Code and Drago’s Best duking it out on the lead through fractions of 21.91 and 44.56. As the pair began to gain distance from the rest of the field at the top of the stretch, suddenly Artest found daylight at the outside and fired for Velazquez.
“I watched this horse run at Gulfstream Park, and I came back and I watched the replay again and I said, ‘If I can get a trip like that, the way he ran in Gulfstream Park,’ and we got it almost the same way that he ran at Gulfstream Park,” he said. “He showed up the way he did over there, and I’m happy he did.”
Artest won an allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 16. His win Thursday is his third from six career starts. He beat Drago’s Best by 11⁄2 lengths, and Gentlemans Code was another three-quarters of a length back.
It was the 656th win at Saratoga for Velazquez. He has won five rider titles here and owns the single-meet record with 65 wins in 2004. Next month, he will be enshrined in the National Racing Hall of Fame across the street from the track.
He’s now 37 wins behind Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey’s career record at Saratoga of 693. He may not reach Bailey at this meet, especially as he takes it easy early. Artest was his lone mount on this card.
But all that matters is he’s back in the game.
“First winner of the meet,” he said. “It feels great to get it out of the way, get it done quickly and move on to the next day.”
SEA ISLAND UPSETS
Grade II winners St. John’s River and Acting Happy wound up racing for second behind 15-1 Sea Island in the second race on the card, a $90,000 allowance optional claiming race stakes race with a stakes-caliber field.
St. John’s River had no room to fire rounding the turn as a trio of horses were shoulder to shoulder in front of her, but as the pack hit the top of the stretch, a space opened up and jockey Rosie Napravnik guided her between horses to challenge for the lead.
On the outside of St. John’s River, Sea Island had more late kick and pulled away to the 31⁄2-length win. Acting Happy came on to challenge for place honors, falling a nose shy.
St. John’ River was fifth in the Alabama last year, and Acting Happy was third in the Alabama in 2010.
FIRST FENCE RACE
Demonstrative won the Jonathan Kiser Novice in the card-opener, taking the meet’s first steeplechase race by two lengths over Wanganui.
Ridden by Robert Walsh for trainer Richard Valentine, Demonstrative sat back through the first three turns of the 2 1/16 miles, then met the final fence with leaders Baltic Shore and Lake Placid, who had run much of the race a headbob apart. Demonstrative had more left in the tank than the leaders and drew clear for the win. Wanganui followed him to earn second, while Baltic Shore was another 23⁄4 lengths back in third.
Sergeant Karakorum, the favorite, was eased late and left the course before the final jump.
Breaking from post position 3, Paynter is the 3-2 morning-line favorite for the Grade I, $1 million Haskell on Sunday at Monmouth Park.
From the rail out, the six-horse field includes Nonios (7-2 with Corey Nakatani for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer), Dullahan (3-1, Kent Desormeaux, Dale Romans), Paynter (Rafael Bejarano, Bob Baffert), Gemologist (3-1, Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher), Handsome Mike (7-2, Mario Gutierrez, Doug O’Neill) and Stealcase (8-1, Shaun Bridgmohan, Mark Casse).
Dullahan is owned in part by Ray Bryan of Saratoga Springs through Donegal Racing.
Paynter was most recently second in the Belmont on June 9. He also was second in the Grade II Derby Trial on April 28. Dullahan was seventh in the Belmont and third in the Kentucky Derby, and he won the Grade I Blue Grass on April 14.
RACHEL’S BABY NAMED
Barbara Banke, owner of Stonestreet, will visit Saratoga today to announce the name of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra’s first foal, a colt by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin born on Jan. 22.The name, which was submitted by Rachel Alexandra and Curlin’s fans earlier this year, will be announced by Banke in a special ceremony following the running of the Curlin Stakes. Stonestreet offered fans a chance to select the name of the bay colt on Valentine’s Day and more than 6,500 official entries were considered.
Rule and Caixa Eletronica may enter the Grade I, $750,000 Whitney on Aug. 4 for Pletcher. Rule beat Flat Out in the Grade II Monmouth Cup on July 7 in his return from a nine-month layoff.
“We thought his first race back was very good,” Pletcher told NYRA. “We need him to come back and work well like he did last week. If that’s the case, we’ll go ahead and take a shot.”
Depending on the likely pace of the Whitney and of the Grade I $400,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt the next day, Caixa Eletronica could end up in either race. If the Vanderbilt pace is likely to be a fast one, he could enter Caixa Eletronica there.
Looking farther down the road, he said 2011 Travers winner Stay Thirsty is likely for the Grade I $750,000 Woodward on Sept. 1.
JERSEY TOWN RETURNS
Jersey Town, winner of the 2010 Cigar Mile, breezed five furlongs in 1:00.59 for trainer Barclay Tagg in preparation for the Alfred G. Vanderbilt. He has not raced since a second-place finish in the Sir Shackleton at Gulfstream Park on March 31.
“He’s hard to get to the races,” Tagg told NYRA. “He’s had a lot of issues, feet mainly, but he’s OK now. He gets hurt a lot, but he heals fast. I was pleased with his work today.”
Also headed to the Vanderbilt is the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Hamazing Destiny, who won the Grade III Maryland Sprint Handicap on Preakness Day at Pimlico.
REMATCH FOR AGAVE KISS
The Grade I $300,000 Prioress on Aug. 4 is expected to draw the top three finishers from the July 7 Grade III Victory Ride, along with Agave Kiss, who was fifth in her first career defeat.
Emma’s Encore, Jamaican Smoke and Tu Endie Wei filled the trifecta in the Victory Ride, keeping Agave Kiss out of the winner’s circle for the first time in her seven-race career. Agave Kiss breezed four furlongs Wednesday for trainer Rudy Rodriguez in 50.03.