ELMONT, N.Y. -- At the beginning of the year, trainer Christophe Clement thought Winchester was better on soft ground. Then the 5-year-old won the Grade 1 Manhattan over firm turf.
Saturday, Winchester proved that Clement's initial instinct may have indeed been correct as Winchester overcame pedestrian fractions and a yielding Belmont Park turf course under Cornelio Velasquez to win the Grade 1, $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational by one length over Paddy O'Prado. It was one-half length back to the Clement-trained Grassy in third.
The victory by Winchester - which enabled the horse to surpass the $1 million mark in career earnings - led Clement to the following conclusion: "The ground is irrelevant."
Winchester's victory was the fourth in this race for owners Bert and Diane Firestone, who won this race in 1987 with Winchester's sire, Theatrical, as well as back-to-back runnings in 1982-83 with April Run.
The win also prompted the Firestones to declare Winchester a likely starter in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6.
Paddy O'Prado, the 6-5 favorite, also likely earned a spot in the Turf with a more than respectable effort for his first time at 1 1/2 miles and first attempt with older horses.
Both horses were near the back of the pack while Interpatation - last year's Turf Classic winner over yielding turf - set fractions of 25.58 seconds, 52.98, 1:20.37 and 1:46.38 for the mile.
Entering the far turn, Winchester launched a six-wide bid, following the five-wide move of Paddy O'Prado, who struck the front just outside the eighth pole. Winchester rallied past Paddy O'Prado inside the sixteenth pole to get the victory. Winchester covered the 1 1/2 miles in 2:36.09 and returned $9.40 to win.
"The track is very soft so my horse was more comfortable getting covered up," Velasquez said. "Then in the last quarter I put him in the clear and he finished very well. I followed [Paddy O'Prado] almost the whole race."
Clement said he had no problem with Winchester being well off the pace despite the slow pace.
"You could see from the half-mile pole on he was traveling so well," Clement said. "He had a lot of horse. I always thought he was better with cut in the ground. We're very lucky, he's a very nice horse."
Trainer Dale Romans said he saw enough from Paddy O'Prado to declare him a starter in the Breeders' Cup.
"Off to Louisville as far as I'm concerned," said Romans, who said the final decision would be left up to owner Jerry Crawford. "But I saw enough to say he could be in the big one. We might have moved a little bit early, but as Kent said it was an unusual race with that kind of pace scenario and the soft turf."