Nobody seemed to want to win the Grade II Lake Placid until Crown Queen and jockey John Velazquez decided she may as well take it in the final strides.
A half-sister to multiple champion Royal Delta, Crown Queen ran her record to 3-for-3 in 2014 by pulling past front-running long shot Duff One to win by a half-length as the 6-5 betting favorite at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
The Lake Placid drew a short field of six that was reduced to four with the scratch of My Miss Sophia, who was entered for main track only, and V V Goodnight.
That left trainer Chad Brown with half the field, but Xcellence and Minorette finished third and fourth, respectively.
And once the gate opened, no one seemed to want the lead, so Duff One and jockey Jose Ortiz inherited it, only to surrender it late to Crown Queen.
“I guess in those cases, you’re glad that you have a Hall of Fame rider in your court, and somebody that has the experience that Johnny does will make the right call as the race develops,” trainer Bill Mott said.
“Actually, it’s more difficult [with a small field] because everyone knows where you are,” Velazquez said. “Two really nice horses were behind me, and I let [Duff One] go to the lead and concentrated on the two horses behind me, so it worked out.”
Like Royal Delta, Crown Queen is owned by Besilu Stables and is out of the A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess, and that’s just about where the similarities end between Crown Queen, who has run exclusively on the turf in five starts, and her half-sister.
“Probably just her class and determination [are similar],” said Mott, who also trained Royal Delta. “She’s a little bit different type of horse, and has a different body type that’s more suitable for the grass than Royal Delta does.”
The Lake Placid was Crown Queen’s graded stakes debut.
She broke her maiden at Belmont Park on June 15, and came back on opening weekend of the Saratoga meet to win an allowance by four lengths.
“To run down those fillies, it makes you wish you were ready to run a month ago in the million-dollar race [in the Belmont Oaks],” Mott said. “She ran well. She showed us that she really belongs at the top level.”
Minorette won the Belmont Oaks, a new 3-year-old turf stakes created by New York Racing Association racing director Martin Panza, on July 5, but she wasn’t quite the equal of Crown Queen on Saturday.
Duff One, sixth by 21⁄2 lengths in the Lake George and showing no history of going to the lead early, went to the front by default in the Lake Placid and led inside the eighth pole when Xcellence and Joe Bravo tried to get through on the rail.
Xcellence gained a slim lead briefly, but backed out of it with 70 yards left as Crown Queen and the Gary Cintessa-trained Duff One continued to battle to her outside.
“That would have been a beautiful upset,” Contessa said. “With the scratches and everything, it looked like we were going to be lone speed. Even though my filly doesn’t want to be on the lead, I said to Jose [Ortiz], ‘If you’re going to be there, be there as slow as possible.’ And she ran great. She tried hard.”
On a very busy day of workouts, Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist breezed five furlongs in 1:01.88 over the Oklahoma training track, and Jim Dandy and Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong went six furlongs in 1:13.15 on the main track.
Both are on target for next Saturday’s Travers Stakes.
“A touch more aggressive, maybe, than last week,” trainer Christophe Clement said of Tonalist’s work with exercise rider Alvaro Hernandez in the irons. “To me, the horse is very, very fit. The plan is not to do any more fast work. Keep him happy, keep him sound and run him next Saturday.”
The Wicked Strong camp is taking a different tack, with a long breeze under Kelvin Pahal on Saturday and a three-furlong blowout scheduled for Thursday.
“Kelvin looked up at me at the quarter pole; I didn’t wave him on any,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. “I didn’t want him to go too fast because he’s already a little more on the bridle with the blinkers on.”