Favored Saratoga Snacks grabbed the lead turning for home and held off a late challenge from Bigger Is Bettor on Saturday afternoon to win the $250,000 Empire Classic, the centerpiece of Belmont Park’s Empire Showcase Day presented by The Fund.
The 11-race card featured a number of sparkling performances, with trainer Linda Rice taking two of the seven stakes races restricted to New York-breds and undefeated filly sensation Cluster of Stars stretching her winning streak to seven.
Saratoga Snacks, who was coming off a 2 ½-month layoff, ran third through the early going as Warrioroftheroses towed the field of eight through a quarter-mile in 23.67 seconds, with the half going in 46.67. Asked for run by jockey Joel Rosario rounding the turn, the 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat swept three-wide to the front and straightened for home with a one-length lead. Challenged through the final furlong by Bigger Is Bettor, Saratoga Snacks dug in and hit the wire three-quarters of a length in front.
His time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48.79.
Unraced since August 1 and with only two starts this year, Saratoga Snacks’ fitness level was a concern for trainer Gary Sciacca and his owner, NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.
“I told Bill he was doing even better now than he was last year,” said Sciacca. “Once I put the glue-on shoes on the horse it made all the difference in the world. He started doing good. Joel [Rosario] came out and worked him the other morning in 1:12 4/5. He worked good and galloped out strong. I said, ‘Well, if he wasn’t fit, that’ll get him right there.’ When they turned for home, I never screamed like I screamed today.”
Sciacca said Parcells, who watched the race from Florida, was “thrilled.”
Sent off as the 3-2 favorite, Saratoga Snacks returned $5 for a $2 win bet and earned $150,000, boosting his bankroll to $464,600. This year, in addition to the Empire Classic, the ridgling won the Shy Groom in June at Belmont and finished third as the favorite in the John Morrissey at Saratoga Race Course. Overall, he is 7-2-1 from 10 starts.
Miss Narcissist kicked off Empire Showcase Day in spectacular fashion with a sharp, front-running score over favored Court Dancer in the $150,000 Joseph A. Gimma for 2-year-old fillies.
Trained by Linda Rice and ridden by Junior Alvarado, the speedy daughter of Freud broke best and angled to the inside, leading the field through soft fractions of 23.11 seconds for a quarter-mile, and 46.31 for a half. Turning for home, Miss Narcissist spurted away from the field when given her cue, and continued to gain separation throughout the stretch to win by 5 ¼ lengths, completing the seven furlongs in 1:23.82.
The bay filly, owned by Acqua Nova Stable, Winter Park Partners and Rice, had been something of a problem child but showed a newfound professionalism in coming off a two-month layoff.
“She was very, very fractious in the paddock and behind the gates the first time I ran her, but she had trained brilliantly,” said Rice. “The second time she won, but she still ran very greenly. We took the next two months to get her to settle in and teach her to switch her leads. She’s been a project, and the gap from her maiden race to this race was two months, but it gave us enough to really work with her.”
Miss Narcissist now owns two victories in three tries with earnings of $134,100. Sent off at 5-1, she returned $12.20 for a $2 win bet.
Palace continued his upward trajectory by making a late surge to overtake Moonlight Song and register a 1 ¼-length triumph in the $150,000 Hudson, a six-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up.
Claimed for $20,000 by trainer Linda Rice for owner Antonino Miuccio a year ago, Palace was unhurried as he departed from the rail, settling in fourth behind an opening quarter-mile in 22.41 seconds. He came off the rail to commence his rally approaching the three-sixteenths pole, then made a relentless charge to propel himself to the front in the final 50 yards.
“Jose [Ortiz aboard Moonlight Song] had a lot of horse in the stretch, but my horse ran hard the last part of the race,” said winning jockey Cornelio Velasquez. “I had the best horse in the race. He’s a very good horse and I had a lot of confidence.”
Off as the 2-1 favorite, Palace returned $6 and completed the distance in 1:08.97.
Palace, a 4-year-old son of City Zip, has now won three of his past four starts and entered the Hudson off a three-length score in the Chowder’s First overnight stakes on August 23 at Saratoga Race Course.
Overall, Palace is 7-2-2 in 13 starts. He has earned $352,050, including $90,000 for his Hudson victory.
“He trained so well last fall,” said Rice. “He really flourished over the winter. I trained his father, and [City Zip] was a special horse. I thought I could see the same things in [Palace]. He bled through Lasix on me. I turned him out for a couple of months, and when I brought him back he was just taking a little longer to get back into shape than I thought [he would]. He was a little heavier than anticipated, but I just knew there was something special under the hood, and he shows it each time.”