He hadn't won since last year's Travers Stakes, and the five-race slump made most handicappers assume that Stay Thirsty's best days were behind him. Yet there he was Saturday on the lead from the start in the $1-million Jockey Club Gold Cup, and not looking as if he would give it up.
Even when defending champion Flat Out came after him in the stretch, Stay Thirsty stayed strong, grinding away along the rail under Ramon Dominguez. Not until the last stride, when Joel Rosario pushed Flat Out's head in front, did the 11-1 shot yield. It was a spectacularly brutal bad beat on Super Saturday at cool, overcast Belmont Park.
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"It was a really good effort,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He just didn't have enough to hang on at the end. I could see Flat Out building up momentum, and I knew it was going to be close.
"I'll talk to Mike [Repole] and see if he wants to try the Classic or not.''
In an email to Newsday, Repole wrote: "Ran too good to be second. Too disappointed to think about the Classic.''
Flat Out paid $9.30, improved to 3-for-3 at Belmont and earned an automatic berth in the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 3 at Santa Anita. He was timed in 2:01.44 and earned $600,000 as he broke a six-race losing streak with his first victory since last year's Gold Cup. "The jock rode a great race,'' trainer Bill Mott said. "Flat Out really loves this track, and this was his day.''
It also was a very enjoyable afternoon for jockey John Velazquez, who won three consecutive Grade I stakes -- the 6-furlong Vosburgh (The Lumber Guy, $6.20) on a good main track, and the 1¼-mile Flower Bowl for fillies and mares (Nahrain, $12) and the 1½-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (Point of Entry, $3.50), both on yielding turf. Jersey Town ($18), trained by Barclay Tagg and ridden by Javier Castellano, won the Grade II, mile Kelso Handicap and will go on to the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
The day's most impressive winner was last year's 3-year-old filly champion, Royal Delta ($3.70), who effortlessly dominated the Grade I Beldame, beating It's Tricky by 9½ lengths for Mott and jockey Mike Smith. "She was still strong going to the wire,'' Smith said, "and I geared her down two or three times.''
Mott swept the $2-million Ladies Classic (Royal Delta) and Classic (Drosselmeyer) last year at Churchill Downs, and Royal Delta and Flat Out will give him the chance for another double in Southern California. Mott also took the Classic with Cigar in 1995, and no trainer ever has won three of them.
Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer finished second in their preps last year and still had more to give. "It kind of worries you a little bit when you win the prep race,'' Mott said. "I don't know if that's a good sign. But I guess Cigar was able to win this race and go on to win the Breeders' Cup.''