As billed, the $250,000 Empire Classic, the marquee race of the New York Showcase Day program, turned out to be an epic showdown between Juddmonte Farms’ Lunar Victory trained by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, and Saratoga Snacks, an up-and-coming sophomore owned by retired NFL coach Bill Parcells’ August Dawn Farm and trained by Gary Sciacca.
Lunar Victory, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown, was seeking his fifth victory in six 2012 starts under Junior Alvarado – his regular rider recently returned to the irons after injury. Saratoga Snacks, making his stakes debut in the Empire Classic in his sixth career start, had won five straight and had the services of Belmont’s leading rider Ramon Dominguez. The 3-year-old Tale of the Cat ridgling was 5-2 second choice and drawn in post six. Lunar Victory was drawn favorably in post eight (of eight) and bet down to 4-5 favoritism,
After the break, Saratoga Snacks joined lead-minded longshot Saxophone Len and Haldane, the lone filly in the field, on the front end and after half mile (46.61) worked his way up to a clear one-length lead. Lunar Victory who moved up from fifth, edged into contention and attached himself to the flank of Saratoga Snacks as the field entered the far turn.
Separating themselves from the rest, Saratoga Snacks and Lunar Victory raced one-two around the turn, with Lunar Victory drawing closer with every stride, until the pair raced in tandem at the quarter pole.
With nothing separating two in upper stretch, Lunar Victory claimed a narrow lead at the furlong marker, but Saratoga Snacks battled on valiantly, as Lunar Victory inched away in the final stages to a 1 1/4-length victory.
Sailmate finished third 6 1/2 lengths further back. Johannesburg Smile, Fiddlers Afleet, Bigger Is Bettor, Haldane, and Saxophone Len completed the order of finish. After a mile run in 1:36.43, the winning time for the nine furlongs was 1:49.70.
Winning rider Junior Alvarado said, “[Lunar Victory] broke really good and then I just tried to settle him down and relax because I knew there would be a little speed in the race. I was a little wide by the half-mile pole, I didn’t want to be in that position, but I didn’t have much choice. I didn’t want to go on the inside. He has so much class though, turning for home I just tried to stay away from [Saratoga Snacks], and he gave me a nice kick at the end.”
Bill Mott, who was celebrating his first victory in the Empire Classic, noted that probably Juddmonte Farms, was “still celebrating Frankel” referring to the superstar’s final start on Saturday when he captured the QIPCO Champion Stakes at Ascot to remain unbeaten in 14 starts.
Mott added, “You know what, they [at Juddmonte] pay attention to all of them, so I’m sure they’re happy to have this one. Every once in a while they’ll buy a yearling at auction, and apparently they liked the looks and the pedigree of this one. I guess he had his chance [in England], but fortunately they brought him back [to the United States].”
Mott also gave a tribute to the runner-up. “If I was the connections of [Saratoga Snacks], I’d be pretty pleased. He battled on hard, and [he is] a pretty doggone good horse. Our horse is a tough horse. I think they had a good horse race. They hooked it up a little ways, and our horse is more seasoned and [had] been the mile and an eighth. [Saratoga Snacks] will be a horse to contend with in the future, that’s for sure.”
Lunar Victory’s next start could come in the Grade 1 Clark to be run November 23 at Churchill Downs.
Lunar Victory came to Mott’s barn late last year from England, where he recorded one victory in eight starts for trainer John Gosden. After a runner-up finish in his North American debut at Aqueduct last December, he won five straight, including the Evan Shipman at Saratoga in July. In his prior start he finished second in Belmont’s Promenade All overnight stakes September 23 after a stumbling start.
Lunar Victory has now compiled a career record of 7-4-2 from 16 starts. His $150,000 winner’s share of the Empire Classic purse brings his earnings to $425,039.
Bred by William Parsons Jr. and David S. Howe and foaled at Cedar Ridge Farm in Pine Plains, Lunar Victory was purchased by Juddmonte at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale for $350,000.
He is the most successful of three winners out of the winning A. P. Indy mare Lunar Colony, whose family is loaded with black type, including, Grade 1 BC Juvenile Fillies winner and champion 2-year-old filly Pleasant Stage, and Grade 1 winners A Phenomenon and Seattle Meteor.