There are times when even a Hall of Fame trainer like Shug McGaughey can be fooled.
When Allen Stable's North Dakota broke his maiden in his seventh try at Tampa Bay Downs in March, McGaughey did not envision winning a graded stakes with the half brother to the popular stallion War Front by year's end.
At the time, McGaughey probably did not think he would still be wearing a mask and socially distancing on a Nov. 21 afternoon at Aqueduct Racetrack, either. Yet there he was, mask in place, talking about North Dakota's first graded stakes win in the $100,000 Red Smith Stakes (G3T).
"I didn't think he'd be winning a grade 3 in the fall, but he has the pedigree and he actually wants to run a distance of ground," McGaughey said.
The 1 3/8-mile distance on a firm turf course posed little problem for the homebred 4-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro as he registered his initial stakes win of any kind by rallying from seventh in the final three furlongs to notch a half-length win over Red Knight in the stakes named after the famed New York Times sports columnist.
The victory came a month after North Dakota's first trip beyond nine furlongs when he finished fourth in the 1 1/2-mile Sycamore Stakes (G3T) at Keeneland, losing by only 2 1/4 lengths despite bumping the rail while rallying in the stretch.
"I always felt (running long) was something he wanted to do," McGaughey said, "but it's hard to find the right spot. This was a pretty good race for $100,000."
Following Saturday's win, McGaughey will send North Dakota Nov. 22 to Payson Park as a winter base for possible starts in one or two of the marathon graded turf stakes at Gulfstream Park.
The Red Smith proved to be a reunion for horses coming out of the Sycamore as five of them, including the top four finishers in the Keeneland stakes, returned from that Oct. 15 race and grabbed the top three spots in the Red Smith.
Finishing fourth was the 9-5 favorite, Woodslane Farm's grade 1-winning Sadler's Joy, a 7-year-old horse who started for the 34th time. Sadler's Joy made six of his previous seven 2020 starts in either grade 1 or 2 stakes, and the change in company was not enough to return the homebred son of Kitten's Joy to the winner's circle for the first time since last year's Red Smith.
Tenth in the field of 11 after six furlongs, he offered his customary burst of late speed but wound up 1 1/4 lengths behind North Dakota.
"I thought he ran well," trainer Tom Albertrani said about the $2.6 million earner. "He just came a little late. We had a good trip, and he's always there. We just needed a little more ground."
Albertrani said it has not been decided whether the homebred would race next year or be retired to become a stallion.
"He still looks great," Albertrani said.
There was a wild charge to the finish after 151-1 shot Real Factor scampered away to a double-digit lead on the backstretch and still led by 10 lengths after a mile in 1:38.49. In the stretch, Real Factor retreated to eighth, and the real running began with Wertheimer et Frere's Ziyad, who was third in the Sycamore for trainer Graham Motion, moving up from third and taking a half-length lead at the eighth pole.
At the same time, several challengers were also kicking into top gear, with the biggest threats coming in the center of the track from North Dakota and Red Knight. Closing stoutly under jockey Jose Lezcano, North Dakota grabbed the lead in the final strides, with Red Knight taking second by a head over Ziyad in the final jump.
The final time was 2:16.47 for North Dakota ($19.40), who has won four of 12 starts with earnings of $157,325.
"He progressed," Lezcano said. "Every pole was progress. As soon as he got to the three-eighths pole, he switched gears. I hit him a couple times, and he really took off and went on with it."
The most recent of 10 foals by the Rubiano mare Starry Dreamer, North Dakota became the fourth graded stakes winner for his dam, joining Ecclesiastic, War Front, and Teammate.
Trinity Farm's Red Knight, a New York-bred son of Pure Prize trained by Bill Mott who was second in last year's Red Smith, was a two-length winner of the Sycamore in his previous start.
"I started moving and tried to get into position without using him much," jockey Jose Ortiz said. "I think I had a good trip. I passed the winner going to the half-mile pole and to the three-eighths pole, but then he came outside me to win the race. Good trip, no complaints. We were just second-best."