Fort Bragg (outside) outduels Saudi Crown in the Dwyer under John Velazquez (Chelsea Durand)
By Ryan Martin – NYRA Press Office
ELMONT, N.Y.— Highly-regarded Fort Bragg secured his breakthrough victory, outdueling a game Saudi Crown in the stretch drive to earn his first graded win in Saturday’s 105th running of the Grade 3, $200,000 Dwyer for sophomores going a one-turn mile at Belmont Park.
Fort Bragg was initially targeting the Grade 1 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun on the June 10 Belmont Stakes undercard, but was scratched from the seven-furlong test when he spiked a fever. The bay son of Tapit was immediately rerouted to Saturday’s test and he did not disappoint as the 3-5 favorite, staving off a resurgent Saudi Crown, the 8-5 second choice, to win by a nose for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Breaking from post 5 under Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Fort Bragg was in the clear in third down the backstretch, sitting 2 1/2 lengths off the early foot of Saudi Crown, who led the six-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in 22.47 seconds over the fast main track with Harrodsburg tracking a close second.
Fort Bragg advanced into second position around the far turn through a half-mile in 44.63 and matched strides with Saudi Crown in upper stretch as the well-backed pair separated themselves from the rest. Fort Bragg garnered a head advantage at the stretch call, while Saudi Crown put up one last fight in the final furlong. But Fort Bragg had enough to keep his foe at bay, winning in a final time of 1:35.37.
It was 11 lengths back to third-place finisher Harrodsburg, followed by Joey Freshwater, Alternate Reality and Prove Right.
Fort Bragg added blinkers for the Dwyer, which Velazquez said made a noticeable difference.
“He was pretty professional today,” Velazquez said. “I talked to Bob and he’s been a horse that gets to kind of looking around and not really paying attention. With the blinkers today, he was pretty professional. I’ve got to say that he was pretty easy to handle. When I put half a length in front of the other horse, I’m thinking I was going to win easy, and all of a sudden the horse stayed there and I can’t put him away. But I did. It was a good effort.”
Velazquez admitted that the stretch run was harder than he anticipated.
“I thought at the quarter pole I was going to win pretty easy,” Velazquez said. “I put a half-length in front of him [Saudi Crown] and the other horse kept fighting. I kind of hung a little bit, but the other horse kept running. I was like, ‘Hey! Don’t let him come back at you, pay attention!’”
Fort Bragg entered the Dwyer from a close second in the one-turn Grade 2 Pat Day Mile on Churchill Downs’ May 6 Kentucky Derby undercard. He remained at Belmont after being withdrawn from the Woody Stephens and breezed twice over Big Sandy under the watchful eyes of trainer John Terranova and his wife and assistant Tonja.
“A big shout out to the Terranovas who looked after the horse for me and saddled him today,” Baffert said.
Baffert said Fort Bragg demonstrated marked improvement in the Dwyer.
“He’s just figuring it out,” said Baffert, who captured previous editions of the Dwyer with Roman Ruler  and Forestry . “His last race was huge at Churchill. He just got away bad that day or he probably would have won the race. I think he’s getting it all together. They went fast today. He went against a really nice horse and they just laid it down, but class always prevails. It was a good race with two good horses.”
A third-out maiden winner in November going two turns at Santa Anita, Fort Bragg was a distant third in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity the following month before finishing fifth in a pair of two-turn preps on the Kentucky Derby trail. But Baffert has not ruled out another future two-turn engagement in a race like the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy on July 29 at Saratoga Race Course.
“I’ll leave that door open. We have some other ones, too,” Baffert said. “We still have the Preakness winner [National Treasure], don’t forget about him. But certainly, we’ll have some good horses in all those stakes races up there.”
Fort Bragg is owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan.
Bred in Kentucky by SF Bloodstock and Henry Field Bloodstock, Fort Bragg is out of the stakes-winning New York-bred Shanghai Bobby mare March X Press. He was purchased for $700,000 at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale.
Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, aboard Saudi Crown, was gallant in defeat but said the outcome could have been different had the Brad Cox trainee drawn an outside post.
“He broke so well and I suspected the other horse outside [Harrodsburg] could go to the lead as well. But he didn’t and my horse broke so well out of the gate and he dictated the pace,” Castellano said. “I just took over the flow – I think the track is a little fast, but these are really good horses. The way he did it was very easy, nice and comfortable. Johnny was right there every single step of the way and I tried to open by one, two [lengths] and let him feel comfortable. But he chased me every single step and I think the two best horses showed up and put on a good show. I’m not disappointed and I’m looking forward to more in the future.”
Live racing continues on Sunday with a nine-race card, featuring the $150,000 Perfect Sting in Race 3. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.