ELMONT, N.Y. – Red Oak Stable and Madaket Stables’ Mind Control challenged Firenze Fire through every point of call and edged the 2-5 favorite for good in the final furlong, gaining the slight advantage from the outside and prevailing by a head to win Sunday’s Grade 2, $250,000 John A. Nerud at Belmont Park.
The 11th running of the John A. Nerud, for 4-year-olds and up competing at seven furlongs on the main track, secured the 5-year-old Mind Control’s spot in the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint on November 6 at Del Mar as a “Win and You’re In” qualifier. It marked the Stay Thirsty son’s first win in nine starts dating to his score in the Grade 3 Tom Fool in March 2020 at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Mind Control, breaking from post 2 under Hall of Famer John Velazquez, challenged Firenze Fire upfront, leading by a head with the opening quarter-mile in 23.05 seconds before Firenze Fire put his head in front with the half-mile in 46.03 over the fast track.
Firenze Fire, with Irad Ortiz, Jr. up, continued to press the pace near the rail out of the turn, but the unrelenting Mind Control gamely fought on stride-for-stride from his immediate outside as the two were on even terms entering the final furlong.
Under Velazquez’s right-handed encouragement, Mind Control gained a fraction of separation and held on in the final jumps, hitting the wire in 1:21.94. Mind Control, making his first start since being transferred from Gregg Sacco to the care of Hall of Famer trainer Todd Pletcher, has now won a graded stakes at ages 2, 3, 4 and 5.
“It was a very good effort,” Pletcher said. “He came to us in very good condition and we’ve been pointing to this race since his arrival. It was great to see him break well. I knew when he got his head in front, he’s a fighter. It was a fun race to watch.
“We knew we needed to get away and we knew the favorite was going to have to establish some position from the rail, so we didn’t want to let him steal anything,” he added. “When he broke as alertly as he did, it put him in a really good spot.
Velazquez tallied his first win in the John A. Nerud. It also marked his first mount on the bay Kentucky homebred since running third in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector in December at Gulfstream Park.
“I told Todd that if he broke well, I was going to use him to get into a good position,” Velazquez said. “I knew Irad had to be pushed coming out of there, and if someone else wanted to go crazy then I would sit off of them. I knew there was enough speed, so I used him well enough to put his head in front and then Irad come after me. It was a two-horse race. That’s the way it turned out and my horse was better than the other one today.”
Off at 5-1, Mind Control returned $12.60 on a $2 win wager. He improved his career earnings to $1,259,229. Mind Control is a possibility for the Grade 1, $600,000 Forego on Travers Day, August 28, at Saratoga Race Course as he targets a third seven-furlong Grade 1 win at the Spa after posting scores in the 2018 Hopeful and the 2019 H. Allen Jerkens.
“As well as he ran today, [he’ll need] a little bit of a freshening in-between,” Pletcher said. “I’ll talk to [Red Oak Stable racing manager] Rick Sacco and the team, but it seems like the Forego would make sense after today.”
Firenze Fire, owned and bred by Mr Amore Stable, was 1 3/4 lengths clear of Three Technque for second. The 6-year-old Kelly Breen trainee entered off back-to-back wins in the Grade 3 Runhappy and Grade 2 True North and has now earned black type in his last six starts, all against graded stakes company.
“He ran hard,” Breen said. “Coming out of the one post might not have been the ideal spot. There’s still some moisture on the track. Not to come up with any excuses, the horse that beat us ran a great race. He came after us right out of the gate.
“Maybe the post position being down on the inside isn’t his favorite spot to be, but they were running,” Breen added. “It was a good race. I talked to Irad and he said, ‘I knew there was going to be a stretch duel.’ If he was on the outside, maybe it’s different, but they came after us. He ran tough in defeat.”
Firenze Fire ran third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland before capping his 2020 with a second-place effort in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector, three-quarters of a length better than Mind Control. The son of Poseidon’s Warrior is 14-5-3 all-time in 34 starts.
“He broke right beside me and I said it’s going to be a match race,” Ortiz, Jr. said about the duel with Mind Control. “Unfortunately, we were inside today. I think if my horse was outside it would be better for me. But, no excuses.
“I tried to go as easy as I can,” he continued. “I looked and I had horses outside me, so I had no chance to get out of there. He ran good. It was a great effort and he kept fighting all the way down the stretch all the way to the wire.”
Top Seed, Wicked Trick and American Power completed the order of finish. Doubly Blessed scratched.
Live racing resumes Monday at Belmont with a nine-race holiday card featuring a 1 p.m. Eastern first post. The day will feature the Grade 3, $250,000 Dwyer for sophomores going one mile on the main track in Race 8 and the $150,000 Grand Couturier for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/2 miles on the turf in Race 6.
NYRA Bets is the official wagering platform of Belmont Park, and the best way to bet every race of the 48-day spring/summer meet. Available to horseplayers nationwide, the NYRA Bets app is available for download today on iOS and Android at www.NYRABets.com.
Belmont Park Press by Brian Bohl
Photo: Mind Control, (Chelsea Durand)