by NYRA Press Office
Donegal Racing's Ballagh Rocks picked up the first stakes win of his career with a hard-fought score over even-money favorite Projected in the Grade 3, $300,000 Poker for 4-year-olds and up on the Widener turf on Father's Day Sunday at Belmont Park.
Under Jose Lezcano, Ballagh Rocks settled close to the pace on the outside of Projected as a frontrunning Catapult took the field of five through an opening quarter mile in 23.03 seconds and the half in 46.12. Projected, ridden by Joel Rosario, was checked in the middle of the turn as Catapult gave up the lead, leaving Ballagh Rocks alone to seize the lead near the quarter-pole.
Lezcano kept close tabs on Projected, fully regrouped and now charging down by the rail, and angled the Bill Mott trainee to the inside to hold off the favorite for a neck victory.
Off at 3-1, Ballagh Rocks returned $8.20 for a $2 win wager and completed the mile in 1:34.98.
"I had a terrific trip," said Lezcano. "He really came into the race fit and in great shape today. I was able to stalk out a perfect trip, and in the lane he just had a great run. Towards the wire I knew the 2 horse [Projected] was close but I was confident I had enough horse. I was just focused on riding through to the finish."
The victory was the first in three stakes attempts for the 4-year-old colt by Stormy Atlantic, who finished a close fourth in the Grade 1 Makers 46 Mile in April and a troubled seventh in the Grade 1 Turf Classic on May 6. The win was the fifth overall for Ballagh Rocks. The $180,000 winner's share of the Poker purse nearly doubled his lifetime earnings, which now stand at $376,910.
"Bill Mott and I were talking about whether to run the horse in a $100,000 stakes at Canterbury or the Poker, and Bill said we're running in the Poker," said Donegal Racing's Jerry Crawford. "So I thought, 'OK, I'm buying a plane ticket if he's that confident.'
"Bill did a great job getting this horse ready," he added. "Jose Lezcano did exactly what we talked about in the paddock. [He had] a brisk warmup. We thought he'd be laying closer to the pace today because there wasn't a great deal of speed and that's exactly what he did. Ballagh Rocks still came with it at the end."
Weekend Hideway, entered for the main track only, and Lubash were scratched.