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Diversify holds off Keen Ice in Gold Cup at Belmont

Ralph Evans has owned thoroughbreds for 50 years, and calls himself “a good lightweight who’s been fighting the heavyweights for a long time.” He figured his New York-bred Diversify had enough early speed to give him a puncher’s chance in Saturday’s 1 1⁄4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, so Evans and trainer Rick Violette took a swing.

As usual, the 4-year-old gelding broke well and took a clear early lead under Irad Ortiz Jr., and when Evans saw they had loped through a quarter-mile in 24.17 seconds, he smiled. His expression didn’t change because Diversify never was threatened, and he held off a late move by 6-5 favorite Keen Ice by a length to take the 99th Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Sometimes the farther they go, the harder it is to catch the leader, and Ortiz rated Diversify brilliantly. They coasted through fractions of 47.74 seconds for a half-mile, 1:11.42 for 6 furlongs and 1:36.08 for a mile, waiting in front for the challenge that never came.

“We couldn’t have dreamed of a better scenario,” said Violette, who wasn’t present because of illness. “The first quarter going in 24 was ideal. The pace certainly made the race for us. He’s always been a nice horse, but he certainly jumped into the major leagues today.”

Besides Keen Ice, who upset Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, Diversify also defeated Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan, who was fourth, 5 3⁄4 lengths behind third-place Pavel, and 2016 Belmont Stakes runner-up Destin (fifth). The six horses he defeated were saddled by Todd Pletcher, Doug O’Neill, Bill Mott and Barclay Tagg, who have trained some of the century’s top runners.

“This was a very emotional win for Rick and me,” Evans said. “We’ve both had health problems, we’ve been together a long time, and I never won a Grade I before.”

Diversify ran 10 furlongs on a fast track in 2:00.96 and paid $9.80 for his seventh win in 10 starts. The $450,000 winner’s share more than doubled his previous earnings of $325,425, and he’s the first New York-bred to take the Gold Cup since Haynesfield did it in 2010.

“He’s the little engine that could,” said Judith Evans, Ralph’s wife and the mother of Diversify’s co-owner, Lauren Evans. Unfortunately for Lauren, she was in Arizona at the Grand Canyon, where she works for the National Park Service.

It was the fourth win of the day for Ortiz, who also took the Grade I Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds on Firenze Fire ($24).

“Diversify is growing up and he was that good today,” Ortiz said. “He used to play a little bit and would wait for horses. He doesn’t do that as much anymore, so he’s getting better.”

He’ll have to keep improving if he runs Nov. 4 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Gold Cup win earned him a spot, and Violette and the Evanses will make a decision next week.

“If he runs there,” Judith Evans said, “Lauren will definitely be at Del Mar.”

New York Sports