Churchtown wins the Gio Ponti under Junior Alvarado (NYRA/Coglianese)
By Mary Eddy – NYRA Press Office
OZONE PARK, N.Y.— W. B. Harrigan and Mike Pietrangelo’s Kentucky homebred Churchtown posted a game wire-to-wire victory for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield in Saturday’s $135,000 Gio Ponti, a 1 1/16-mile outer turf route for 3-year-olds, at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Ridden to victory by Junior Alvarado, the son of Air Force Blue shipped in from Woodbine Racetrack to earn the first stakes victory of his career on the heels of a pace-pressing runner-up effort in the Toronto Cup at the Ontario oval, where he scored two allowance sprint victories earlier this year. His other win was a debut score last October over the Woodbine Tapeta before finishing a pacesetting fourth in the Grade 3 Grey.
Attfield said going to the front made sense today for Churchtown.
“In his last race, he didn’t need to be near the lead. He does better when he stalks a little bit and they had him near the lead and he just got caught,” said Attfield over the phone from Florida. “But when they went as slow as they did today, of course he would be on the lead. He’s a very genuine running horse.”
Churchtown broke alertly from the inside post and made the early lead for the first time since a close runner-up effort in allowance company in December at Gulfstream Park. Longshot Riot House tracked to his outside in second as the field rounded the first turn through an opening quarter-mile in 25.09 seconds over the firm footing.
With Churchtown and Riot House maintaining position down the backstretch, Todd Pletcher-trained stablemates Grand Sonata and post-time favorite Steady On raced on even terms for third after passing the half-mile call. Positions remained unchanged until Riot House made a mild bid approaching the turn with Steady On looming three-wide under a strong ride from Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Churchtown dug in gamely nearing the top of the stretch as Riot House retreated and Grand Sonata advanced along the rail, making progress as Steady On put in his run down the center of the racetrack after three-quarters in 1:14.30. Alvarado implored his mount for more and Churchtown answered, staving off a flying finish from Steady On by a half-length in a final time of 1:44.48.
Steady On bested Grand Sonata by a neck for place honors, followed by a rallying Dakota Gold to round out the superfecta. Riot House, who was squeezed back at the start, Wicked Fast, Marinara Sauced, Ohtwoohthreefive and Wow Whata Summer completed the order of finish. Main-track only entrant Be Better was scratched.
Attfield said the others didn’t have a prayer after the moderate tempo.
“When I saw the first quarter in that time, I thought, my God, he should be on the lead,” said Attfield. “They were just walking. They went the half so slow and I thought they may not catch him. It worked out good.”
Alvarado, who rode Churchtown for the first time, said the gelding made the lead easily.
“They didn’t give me any instructions, but being in the one-hole, I thought I didn’t have much choice but to send him out of there and try and take the lead,” said Alvarado. “He responded very well. He took the lead and then after that, he pretty much knew what to do. Turning for home, right away he had a great turn-of-foot and I knew there would be enough for me to carry to the wire.”
Attfield said Churchtown, who returned $13.20 for a $2 win wager, could target the $100,000 Tropical Park Derby on December 26 at Gulfstream Park next.
“Off of that race, I’ll probably look at the Derby here at the end of the year,” Attfield said.
Churchtown became the fifth individual stakes winner this year for Attfield, who recently enjoyed a memorable Breeders’ Cup in tandem with owner-breeder Charles Fipke. There, he posted a runner-up effort from 55-1 shot Shirl’s Speight in the Grade 1 Mile and a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Filly and Mare Turf with 32-1 Lady Speightspeare. Seasoned bettors may have cashed in on Attfield’s previous big-day prowess in the 2011 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at 27-1 with Perfect Shirl – the dam of Shirl’s Speight.
Attfield said that Lady Speightspeare, a 4-year-old Speightstown chestnut, is slated to start in the Grade 3, $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf Invitational on January 28 at Gulfstream Park.
“That’s the aim for her. We just hope it doesn’t get too hot. She hates it hot,” Attfield said. “She’s doing great. Her and Shirl’s Speight are both down here.”
Attfield said an international endeavor could be in the cards for Shirl’s Speight.
“They’d like to go to Japan in February with him, but we might do something before that with him if we can. I’ll have to talk to Mr. Fipke about that,” Attfield said.
The Gio Ponti was the first victory at the Big A for Attfield since the 2010 Grade 3 Long Island Handicap with Mekong Melody, but the affable trainer also boasts significant Aqueduct scores in the 1993 Grade 1 Carter Handicap with Alydeed along with Grade 2 scores in 1995 with Talkin Man in the Gotham and Wood Memorial.
Live racing resumes Sunday at the Big A with a 10-race card, featuring the $100,000 Key Cents in Race 3 and the $135,000 Forever Together in Race 7. First post is 11:50 a.m. Eastern.
America’s Day at the Races will present live coverage and analysis of the Aqueduct fall meet on the networks of FOX Sports. For the broadcast schedule and channel finder, visit https://www.nyra.com/aqueduct/racing/tv-schedule.
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