SARATOGA SPRINGS -- If there had been a church pew in the Saratoga Race Course winner's circle on Saturday, trainer Gregg Sacco would've knelt down on it.
With front-running 1-5 betting favorite Shancelot desperately trying to finish off the Grade I Allen Jerkens on the rail, Mind Control and Hog Creek Hustle grinded away at the lead in the last few strides, and the three horses hit the wire shoulder-to-shoulder-to-
Sacco needed more evidence than what he saw with his own eyes, and his jockey on Mind Control, John Velazquez, wasn't willing to believe that he had won, either.
"I did a couple Hail Mar ... uh, a couple prayers," Sacco said soon enough, with the wide smile of a winner.
Returning to the site of Mind Control's victory in the 2018 Hopeful -- the first Grade I victory in Sacco's 30 years as a head trainer -- the colt in the middle of the Allen Jerkens threesome got his nose in front first, with Hog Creek Hustle another narrow nose ahead of Shancelot, the freakishly fast star of the Amsterdam four weeks ago.
After Mind Control finished eighth in the Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day, Sacco skipped the Amsterdam, opting instead to run in a much easier spot at Laurel Park in Maryland that gave Mind Control an extra two weeks to get ready for the Allen Jerkens.
The planning paid off, as he just got up in time against a horse, Shancelot, who was expected to dominate.
"This was the race we were pointing for since the Woody, all summer, and we wanted him in peak performance," Sacco said. "This is better [than the 2018 Hopeful]. Because a lot of horses, they don't improve from 2 to 3, and this horse did.
"Shancelot, everybody was worried about him. But we knew he was coming here, and you load them up in the gate and run the race, and we came out on top."
Saratoga has been producing multiple photo finishes lately, and this one involved three horses.
Shancelot, who won the Amsterdam by 12 1/2 lengths, had a short lead in the Allen Jerkens early that grew to 2 1/2 at the eighth pole.
Several horses were in hot pursuit and gained ground from there, though, including Hog Creek Hustle on the outside. He was able to get a nose in front of Shancelot at the wire, but by then Mind Control had split between those two and hit the wire first.
Velazquez said he refused to assume anything about the finish until it was officially posted.
"No, it was very close, man," he said with a rueful grin. "I've been beaten twice on the wire here [this meet], so I didn't want to curse myself. He [Sacco] asked me, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I don't think I got it, but let's see what happens.'"
SWORD DANCER/BALLSTON SPA
There were six turf races on the 13-race card.
Not surprisingly, trainer Chad Brown won five of them, including the Grade I Sword Dancer with Annals of Time and the Grade II Ballston Spa with Significant Form.
With seven racing days left in the meet, he has 33 winners (to 13 for Todd Pletcher), and most of those have been in grass races.
But it wasn't easy on Saturday, as he won three races by a neck and the first race on the card by half a length. In the third race, Dabinett and Balon Rose were separated by a neck in a Chad-xacta.
The Sword Dancer and Ballston Spa each drew nine horses, and Brown had three in each.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Annals of Time came from the back of the pack to finish on the outside of five horses in contention inside the eighth pole and was able to get to the wire ahead of a hard-charging Sadler's Joy.
"When he tipped out, I thought we had a good chance, because he has a really good, strong closing kick," Brown told the New York Racing Association. "But it was a little tight near the finish. I'm glad he got up in time."
"Some horses have to have pace in the race, but this horse doesn't need one," Castellano said. "You can see the pace was very slow, but he still responded and passed all the horses."
On Significant Form in the Ballston Spa, Brown had the services of another Hall of Fame jockey, John Velazquez, and they put together another neck victory out of a five-horse scramble near the wire.
He replaced regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., who was on one of Brown's other fillies, Mascha, the 5-2 betting favorite who finished last.
"They told me she was a nice horse, and they were right about it," Velazquez said. "The way she ran down the lane, she responded right away and showed great fight."
Come Dancing took a back seat for a change, but still drove her way to the winner's circle in the seven-furlong Grade I Ballerina under Javier Castellano.
Sent off as the 3-5 betting favorite while cutting back in distance off a loss to Midnight Bisou in the Ogden Phipps, Come Dancing came back from a bump at the start and an uncharacteristic stalking position to win by 3 1/2 lengths.
She's used to being in front all the way, but responded to this new territory without any difficulty.
"When I saw her just sit out there in third, I said, 'She's so comfortable,'" trainer Carlos Martin said. "When she gets into that comfortable rhythm, it means she has a lot left coming back."
"On paper, she looked like the horse to be in the lead, but in my heart I felt she didn't have to be on the lead today," Castellano said. "You can do whatever you want with her. In the stretch, she proved she was much the best the way she did it."
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.