The May 15 program at Pimlico Race Course kicked off with trainer Bob Baffert sending out the 3-5 favorite Hozier in the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance for 3-year-olds, but at the end of a close and exciting stretch duel, The King Cheek edged past the grade 2-placed colt to record a head victory.
"He ran a very good race," assistant trainer Jim Barnes said about Hozier, runner-up in the Rebel Stakes (G2). "(Jockey Joel Rosario) thought he made the right move getting down towards the inside, but give a lot of credit to the horse that won. He fought back and passed us."
The winner was more unlikely than his 5-1 odds.
"There was a five-way shake for him and he ran terrible," Ness said. "I told my owner, 'Go lose the shake.'"
He didn’t. The King Cheek went to Morris Kernan and promptly won his next start.
After The King Cheek won a May 3 starter race at Parx Racing for Kernan and Jagger Inc., Ness was uncertain of the next race for the gelding bred by Pucker Ridge Farm, until the Pimlico racing office convinced him to run against a short cast in the Sir Barton.
"You just never know," Ness said. "I've claimed a lot of horses, and you just never know."
The King Cheek covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.81 under Jaime Rodriguez and paid $10.40 to win for his fourth victory in nine career starts. He has earned $132,575.
Video: Sir Barton S. (BT)
T D Dance Draws Away in James Murphy
With the favored Outadore scratched, the $100,000 James W. Murphy Stakes, a one-mile turf contest for sophomores, turned into a wide-open affair for seven other colts and geldings. Race favoritism fell upon the Brax Cox-trained T D Dance who shipped in from Kentucky and was a last-out winner of a March 27 Fair Grounds Race Course allowance optional claimer.
The Can the Man colt broke alertly from the far post in his second stakes try and was quickly taken under a hold by jockey Javier Castellano. Charles Chrome, stretching out for the first time, hustled away from the barrier to set the early pace, dueling with second choice Kasin through opening splits of :23.28 and :47.61. At the top of the lane, Charles Chrome shook off a retreating Kasin as T D Dance searched for running room behind horses. When a hole opened up in the final sixteenth, the dark bay split his rivals willingly, surging clear for a 3 3/4 length score.
"We had a great trip, a dream trip," said Castellano. "We saved all the ground on the first turn. Even though it was a small field, I covered him upon the first turn. On the far turn, he cut the corner and finished up and galloped out strong. He took off when that seam opened. I told Brad that he could be really competitive at a longer distance."
Arzak rallied to grab second over a stubborn Charles Chrome. T D Dance clocked the mile on a firm turf course in a swift 1:34.89.
"He ran well," said Cox. "(I am) glad he performed the way he had been training. He has always trained really well and I think he is improving mentally as time goes on. Hopefully we can compete with the horses on the (New York Racing Association) circuit in the 3-year-old division. That is the goal."
A debut winner as a 2-year-old last October at Indiana Grand, T D Dance was narrowly beaten in an off-the-turf allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds in December before finishing a non-threatening fifth in the Feb. 27 Black Gold Stakes in his inaugural stakes effort.
T D Dance was picked up out of Eddie Woods' consignment for $75,000 at last year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Spring 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale by BSW Bloodstock/Liz Crow for Madaket Stables, Wonder Stable, Paul Farr, and Team Hanley. A half brother to the graded stakes-placed Kid Perfect, T D Dance is the first stakes winner out of the Lemon Drop Kid mare Sheza Sweet Lemon. He was bred in Kentucky by Sovereign Farm.
T D Dance paid $3.80 for his third win in five trips to the post. He has earned $122,300.
Video: James W. Murphy S. (BT)
Chub Wagon Remains Undefeated in Skipat
Daniel Lopez and George Chestnut's Chub Wagon, undefeated through her first five starts, kept her perfect record intact with an uncharacteristic come-from-behind victory in the $95,000 Runhappy Skipat Stakes.
Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr. for Parx-based trainer Guadalupe Preciado, 6-5 favorite Chub Wagon had led at every point of call in each of her races but was outrun for the lead by multiple stakes winner Dontletsweetfoolya, who ran a quarter-mile in :22.87 and a half in :46.05 while Chub Wagon rated in third.
Ortiz tipped Chub Wagon out at the top of the stretch. The 4-year-old daughter of Hey Chub took command midway down the lane and kept increasing her lead to the wire, winning by two lengths over Casual in 1:09.71. Club Car flew late to be third a nose behind Casual.
"We wanted to try to (sit off the pace), and today was the perfect day," said Preciado. "We know she can come from behind. She's a nice filly."
Chub Wagon was bred in Pennsylvania by co-owner Chestnut and Joe-Dan Farm out of the Lion Heart mare Takin the Plunge. The Skipat was her second career stakes win and first in open company. She has earned $227,800.
"We're going to see how she comes back and probably we'll take one step a little higher," said Preciado. "She responds every time we ask her to."
Video: Runhappy Skipat S. (BT)
Firecrow Sets Track Record in Jim McKay
Robert LaPenta and Harlow Stables' Firecrow had not tested the turf since the fall of 2019, when he yielded at the shadow of the wire to finish third in a Keeneland allowance and was ninth in a Churchill Downs allowance. The 5-year-old Maclean's Music gelding was dismissed at 9-1 in the $100,000 Jim McKay Stakes when back on the surface Saturday, following a fourth in the March 13 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but came out a neck on top.
Race favorite The Critical Way, who actually broke before the start of the race and was quickly apprehended, rocketed from the gate and steamrolled through a sizzling opening quarter of :21.92 while Firecrow perched just outside of the leader under Joel Rosario. At the top of the lane, The Critical Way attempted to shrug off his rival, gaining a 1 1/2-length advantage mid-stretch before Rosario went to work on Firecrow. The gelding responded with a fresh turn of foot, wearing down his stubborn foe.
The final time for the five furlongs established a course record of :55.30.
The Completed Pass, away last after hopping at the break, closed to complete the trifecta.
"We were geographically challenged with having no turf where we go in the winter (Oaklawn) so we finally got back to where they have turf and it worked out perfect," said winning trainer Ron Moquett. "You know we thought he ran well when he ran on the turf against multiple graded stakes winners at Keeneland so we were just trying to get him back to the turf and see if it worked."
There may be a lot more turf races in the cards for Moquett's budding star.
"For awhile we may (keep him on the grass)," said Moquett. "He's a stakes-winner on the turf now, so I guess (he's better on) the turf."
Firecrow improved his record to four wins from 14 lifetime starts with earnings of $233,536.
Bred in Kentucky by Johnson, Galvin, and Flounders, Firecrow is out of the Indian Charlie mare Cheyenne Autumn. He was a $300,000 purchase by agent Steve Young from the Scanlon Training & Sales consignment to the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale.