by Brian Bohl
Red Oak Stable and Madaket Stables' Mind Control set the early pace and maintained that edge in the stretch, outkicking a charging Our Braintrust to win the 149th running of the $150,000 Jerome for newly minted 3-year-olds on Tuesday, New Year's Day, at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Jerome, the Big A's first "Road to the Kentucky Derby Series" race of the year, saw Mind Control earn 10 qualifying points for the Run for the Roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs, winning for the second time in three starts after earning an impressive three-quarters of a length victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful on September 3 at Saratoga Race Course.
After running seventh last out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 1 1/16 miles on November 2 at Churchill Downs, the Gregory Sacco trainee bounced back in his Aqueduct debut. Under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, the 3-2 favorite went nearly stride-for-stride with 2-1 second-choice Souper Jackpot, holding an advantage by a head through an opening quarter-mile in 24.16 seconds and the half in 48.40 on a harrowed and good main track.
Velazquez urged along Mind Control near the rail and maintained the advantage as Our Braintrust made a bid from the outside, but Mind Control dug in for a 1 ½-length win, completing one mile in 1:39.06.
"I wanted to put him in the race and make sure that I was in a good position where if someone was going crazy, I could just sit off the speed," Velazquez said. "I broke well and got the position I wanted in the first part of the race. I saw the other horse on the outside [Souper Jackpot], he didn't want to go, so I got close to him and by the turn we both came in and kind of sat there. Down the lane, I remember from Saratoga he opens up and he waits, so I waited until they came after him to get after him really hard and he responded really well."
The Stay Thirsty colt improved to 3-1-0 in five career starts, increasing his total earnings to $323,400.
"He took the heat from the [Mark] Casse horse [Souper Jackpot] down the backside," Sacco said. "He was at his throatlatch the whole way and then the other horse [Our Braintrust, No. 3] came to him at the eighth pole and he spurted away. He's still green and learning. We're overwhelmed with this performance today. Of course, when you run like that, it's hard to fault the way he ran today."
NYRA has three more "Road to the Kentucky Derby" races on its stakes calendar, including the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers on February 2 that will also offer 10-4-2-1 points and the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham on March 9, offering 50-20-10-5 points. The last and most prestigious Derby prep on the NYRA circuit is the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 6, which awards points on a 100-40-20-10 ration and could also offer a $1 million purse if Mind Control or any other previous Grade or Group 1 winner is declared an official starter in the race.
"It's in our backyard here at Belmont now where we're comfortable. He ran the way he has been training and we'll look forward to the next step," Sacco said about the Withers. "With him being a Grade 1 winner, the Wood goes up to a million [via a purse bonus]. We would take every race, race by race, but it certainly is appetizing and enticing."
Mind Control paid $5 on a $2 win wager.
Our Braintrust, who was stretching out to a mile for the first time, showed the form that led to a second-place finish in the Maryland Juvenile Futurity on December 8 at Laurel Park. Trained by Cathal Lynch, Our Braintrust finished four lengths clear of Family Biz for second, earning four qualifying points.
"I have a lot of faith in him. He's a nice sized horse and nice working since the beginning," said Our Braintrust jockey Jorge Vargas, Jr. "I was a little concerned, he was coming from a little layoff. He ran hard last time and I was worried if he was going to show up and he did. That's a nice horse, the one who beat me.
"I thought for a second I was going to get there, but that horse in front [Mind Control], he gave me a little shot and that was it," he added. "My horse tried, took a shot, but couldn't make it."
Family Biz, trained by Edward Barker, notched two points for third. Fourth-place finisher Gates of Dawn garnered one point.
Souper Jackpot and Direct Order completed the order of finish.
Live racing will return Friday at Aqueduct with an eight-race card. First post time is 12:50 p.m.