OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Stuart S. Janney III’s Kentucky homebred Celestial City made the grade with a powerful stretch run to capture Saturday’s Grade 2, $300,000 Hill Prince, a nine-furlong inner turf test for sophomores, at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet.
Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey and piloted by Jose Lezcano, the Uncle Mo bay hit the board in both his previous graded attempts this summer at Saratoga Race Course, finishing third in the one-mile Grade 2 Hall of Fame in August and dead-heating for second in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Saranac in September.
Celestial City stumbled at the start from the inside post and saved ground at the back of the nine-horse field as longshot Nantasket Beach set splits of 24.23 seconds and 49.83 over the firm going with Grade 1-placed Mackinnon pressing from second position in front of Constitutionlawyer and Grand Sonata.
Nantasket Beach continued to lead the way into the final turn with MacKinnon ready to pounce and Be Better edging closer to the outside of Constitutionlawyer through three-quarters in 1:15.26.
The Flavien Prat-piloted Mackinnon took over at the stretch call but Celestial City, full of run, rallied to the inside of Constitutionlawyer before angling outside and vaulting past Mackinnon to secure a 2 1/4-length win in a final time of 1:50.27.
Mackinnon completed the exacta by a head over an outside-charging Grand Sonata, who nosed out the rail-rallying Wicked Fast. Constitutionlawyer, St Anthony, Nantasket Beach, the McGaughey-trained Limited Liability, Be Better and Unanimous Consent rounded out the order of finish.
McGaughey said Celestial City improved with the addition of blinkers for the Saranac when completing the exacta behind Annapolis, who exited that event to capture the Grade 1 Turf Mile at Keeneland.
“This horse’s races have been good. He’s run against some pretty tough competition. I think he’s learning now, and I think we’ve learned a little something today with him not breaking well,” McGaughey said. “He got farther back than I thought he would, but he made a pretty explosive run so maybe that’s what he wants to do. That’s a little bit my style, but the way the turf courses have been playing, a lot of the time you got to be playing up close.
“His race when he dead heated at Saratoga against Annapolis – a pretty darn good horse – [was good],” added McGaughey. “I’m pleased with him, he’s trained well. His last race was a good race and I think we’ve learned a little more about him now.”
Celestial City entered the Hill Prince from a sharp allowance score against older company on September 24 at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet with Lezcano at the helm for just the second time.
“He didn’t break the way I wanted, but at least it worked out in our favor,” Lezcano said. “After that, I had to go with the second plan and let him make one run. When I started asking him, he gave me everything he has. He’s improving mentally more than anything.”
Prat said he thought he was in a winning position turning for home.
“I broke well and felt like there was no pace in the race, so I was trying to get myself as close as I could without rushing him,” Prat said. “He really gave me a great turn of foot when I asked him to run and just got outrun. To be honest, turning for home, I thought I was gone.”
McGaughey said Celestial City could possibly target the Grade 1, $400,000 Hollywood Derby on December 3 at Del Mar.
“I’m not ready to stop as long as he’s saying ‘Go,’” McGaughey said. “I hadn’t thought about his future, but I’ll give it some thought now after seeing him run today.”
Bred in Kentucky by his owner, Celestial City banked $165,000 in victory, while improving his record to 9-3-2-2. Celestial City is out of the Malibu Moon mare Lunar Evening, who is a half-sister to the McGaughey-trained Grade 1-winner Hymn Book. He returned $9.60 for a $2 win bet.
Live racing resumes on Sunday at Belmont at the Big A with a nine-race card, featuring the $120,000 Carle Place in Race 6. First post is 12:35 p.m. Eastern.
By Keith McCalmont
Main Photo by Susie Raisher