by Heather Pettinger and Najja Thompson
Kahleem Shah’s American Gal made her long-awaited comeback a successful one, laying it on thick with a 4 ¾-length score in the Grade 3, $150,000 Victory Ride for 3-year-old fillies at 6 ½ furlongs on Sunday at Belmont Park.
Southern California-based trainer Simon Callaghan shipped the Concord Point filly east for her first start since finishing second to eventual Kentucky Oaks and Grade 1 Acorn winner Abel Tasman in the Grade 1 Starlet on December 10 at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Joined on the front end by Noble Freud and Too Much Tip, American Gal recovered from a stumbled start to contest the early pace. With American Gal racing three- to four-wide, the tightly-packed field swept through the opening quarter-mile in 22.48 seconds, with the half going in 45.84.
American Gal, ridden by Flavien Prat, shook clear at the top of the stretch, drawing off to complete the sprint in 1:17.38. The winner’s share of the Victory Ride purse boosted her earnings to $407,700. Sent off at 6-5, the winner returned $4.50 for a $2 win wager.
“Simon did a great job and she was ready to run today,” said Prat. “She stumbled a bit from the gate, then after that when she was on the lead around the turn, she was ready.”
American Gal, who also finished third in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, is now 3-for-3 in sprint races, winning her first two career starts by a combined 8 ¾ lengths. Shah, on hand to watch his filly pick up her first stakes win, said American Gal will target the Grade 1, $500,000 Longines Test on August 5 at Saratoga Race Course.
“She had worked brilliantly coming into this race, so we expected a big effort,” said Shah. “I would have been surprised if she had lost. I’m so pleased with the race and hopefully we go on to bigger and better things.”
Vertical Oak, who broke wide, checked in second, a neck ahead of Noble Freud in third, followed by Golden Mischief and Too Much Tip.
One race later, 9-5 post-time favorite Apple Betty did not disappoint her backers, holding off a late-charging Summersault in the $100,000 River Memories to earn her first victory since arriving to North America last October.
Leaving from the outermost post with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard, Apple Betty was sent directly to the lead in the field of nine. Setting tepid fractions along the rail, Apple Betty covered the opening quarter-mile in 25.04 and the half in 51.05. Closely stalked by Desiree Clary to her outside and Summersault on the inside, Apple Betty remained comfortably in front as the mile went in 1:41.15.
As the field turned for home, Velazquez urged on Apple Betty once again and she responded to hit the wire first by a half-length over a closing Summersault and Lottie who ran late to secure third.
The 1 ½-mile distance was completed in 2:27.94 on the firm Widener turf course.
“On paper, it didn’t look like there was much pace in the race,” said Velazquez, who picked up his third win of the day. “We’ve been trying to rate her behind horses, but today I just left her where she wanted to be. She was comfortable on the lead, so I just let her do it. It worked out that way, we inherited the lead and kept it going. She settled well and finished well. It’s her first time going this far and it didn’t seem to bother her.”
Returning $5.90, the Irish-bred daughter of Galileo boosted her career earnings to $205,619 for owner Allen Stable and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.
“I think the first two times I ran her, I tried to rate her a little bit. Today, I just told Johnny to let her run her race,” said McGaughey. “I think she could have went around again at that pace. I didn’t what was going to happen, but I was happy to see the [fractions].”
“We’ll think about the [Grade 3 Fasig-Tipton] Waya and the [Grade 3] Glens Falls and hopefully we can make one of them.”
Following Lottie was Desiree Clary, Feeling Bossy, Estrechada, Evidently, Quiet Business and Achnaha completing the order of finish.