POKER STAKES | PURSE: $300,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 3 | ONE-MILE (TURF)
After racing last in the early stages, Jack Milton flashed quick finishing speed to win the $300,000 Poker Stakes May 26 at Belmont Park, a victory that made Todd Pletcher Thoroughbred racing's all-time leading money winning trainer.
The 2-1 second choice in the six-horse field, Jack Milton was shifted five wide into the stretch, overtook front-runner Plainview with a furlong to run and drew clear to a convincing 2 3/4-length tally.
Big Screen was up for second, two lengths in front of odds-on favorite Za Approval. Jack Milton earned the $180,000 winner's share of the Poker purse, pushing Pletcher's career purse earnings to $268,502,284.
Pletcher moved past D. Wayne Lukas, his mentor, who is now second on the all-time list with $268,467,262.
"I think it's a product of inflation, to be honest," Pletcher said of his achievement, "and I don't think anybody is going to match Wayne's accomplishments in this business. That said, it's still a satisfying milestone for the team and a record to be proud of."
Pletcher trains Jack Milton for owner Gary Barber. The War Front colt is perfect in two starts this season, following his 2014 bow in a one-mile allowance/optional turf race May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Javiar Castellano settled Jack Milton at the back of the field on the rail, about nine lengths off the pace, as Peace and Justice dashed from the inside post to grab command early. Peace and Justice opened a 4 1/2-length lead down the backstretch, clocking a swift :22.57 for the opening quarter under a tight hold by Alex Solis, with Plainview and favorite Za Approval tracking from second and third, respectively.
After the half went in :45.45, Plainview closed in on the pacesetter and poked his head in front at the quarter pole in 1:09.62.
Castellano fanned out Jack Milton nearing the three-sixteenths pole and he was keen to run when given his cue.
Dispatching tiring Plainview to lead by a half-length in early stretch, Jack Milton ran on strongly as Big Screen, fifth at the top of the stretch, gamely split horses at the furlong marker but never was getting close to the winner. Jack Milton was timed in 1:33.09 for one mile on firm turf.
"My horse had a perfect trip," Castellano said. "There was a lot of speed in the race so he was able to settle and make a run. The firm turf was perfect for him."
Za Approval, runner-up to two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile, went three wide into the stretch in a tepid challenge for Joel Rosario before flattening out in the drive.
Jack Milton's record improved to 4-1-4 from 10 career starts and $505,900 in earnings. The Poker was his second win in a stakes. Last year, he won the Transylvania, then posted consecutive third-place finishes in the Virginia Derby and Secretariat and Jamaica Handicap. He closed the year by finishing sixth in the Hollywood Derby Dec. 1.
"He knocked on the door several times in some nice races last year, so it's gratifying to see him win a big one," Pletcher said. "He certainly deserves it. "I think he has improved as a 4-year-old, and he settled well today and gave a powerful kick. I think the mile distance suits him well, and we'll look at stepping him up a notch, maybe in a Ggrade I down the road."
Jack Milton paid $7.70, $4.10 and $2.20, and Big Screen returned $9.20 and $3.40. Za Approval, toting top weight of 122 pounds, paid $2.10 to show.
Plainview finished fourth, followed by Sinatra and Peace and Justice.
Bio Pro was a trainer scratch.
Jack Milton was bred in the name of Claiborne Farm owner Seth Hancock's Cherry Valley Farm. He is out of the Forty Nine mare Preserver and is a full brother to grade III winner Peace Preserver.
The dark bay or brown colt was offered by Claiborne at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, where he was bought for $100,000 by Steve Young, agent. His reserve price was not met on a final bid of $190,000 at the 2012 Ocala Breeders' Sale Co. March sale of selected 2-year-olds in training.