Strike the Gold, the Kentucky Derby winner who became the laughingstock of the industry, ended a 12-race losing streak yesterday and won the $700,000 Pimlico Special.
The 4-year-old son of Alydar, who was sold at a public auction just five days ago to solve a disgruntled partnership, circled the seven-horse field and caught pacesetter Fly So Free about four strides from the wire.
Best Pal, the 3-5 favorite and 126-pound highweight, finished fourth.
Strike the Gold was ridden by Craig Perret, who was winning his second Pimlico Special since the race was revived at Pimlico Race Course five years ago.
"Everything I lost, I got back in one moment," an emotional Nick Zito, trainer of Strike the Gold, said after the race. "This is a courageous animal."
Zito refused to give up on the horse although Strike the Gold had not won a race since last year's Derby and was becoming the losingest Derby winner in history.
The streak ended on the track where it began last year when Strike the Gold was sixth when favored in the 116th Preakness.
Fly So Free was the surprising pacesetter yesterday, going to the front almost immediately. Jose Santos, his jockey, slowed down the pace, setting fractions for each quarter mile of :23 2/5, :47 3/5, 1:11 2/5 and 1:35 4/5 for the mile. The horse resisted
challenges from Ibero, Twilight Agenda, Best Pal and Valley Crossing, but was overhauled in the stretch by Strike the Gold, who completed the 1-3/16 miles in 1:54 4/5 seconds, the slowest in the last five Special runnings.
Twilight Agenda finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Fly So Free and 2 1/4 lengths in front of Best Pal.
Valley Crossing, a local horse, made a menacing run, but hung in the stretch and ended up fifth.
Strike the Gold lagged far behind in last during the early running. "At the half-mile pole I was running out of goggles, so I thought I better start getting him to run," Perret said. "At the first cue, he started picking up horses. Then when I straightened for home, I just hoped that he would keep on firing."
Strike the Gold swung about five horses wide on the turn and then closed with determination. "I was just a passenger," Perret said.
The race was vindication for the horse's owners, Bill Condren and Joe Cornacchia, who spent almost $1 million to buy Strike the Gold out of a three-way partnership that also had included B. Giles Brophy.
The horse sold at a tent sale at Belmont Park on Tuesday to dissolve the partnership, which at times had been so virulent that it had involved litigation. The total price was $2.9 million, but Condren, a real estate investor, and Cornacchia, the publisher of such games as Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit, only had to pay for a third of the horse.
"My heart was thumping throughout the whole sale," Cornacchia said. "But we had faith in the horse and in Nick. We knew it wasn't a great investment. People said we had spent too much. But we are not in this sport for just dollars and cents."
Strike the gold earned $420,000 for winning yesterday's race and increased his career winnings to $1,974,426.
Zito said it would have been fitting if Chris Antley, who rode Strike the Gold in the Kentucky Derby, has been on the horse. "But he had about eight calls tor ride at Belmont and had made the commitments before the sale on Tuesday," Zito said.
Perret was riding Strike the Gold for the second time. He was on the horse last year in the Florida Derby when he finished second to Fly So Free.
Strike the Gold had entered the fourth race of the nine-race American Championship Racing Series yesterday with zero points. But he gained 10 points for the victory, placing him fourth behind Best Pal, Twilight Agenda and Sea Cadet.
Even though Best Pal finished fourth yesterday, he picked up three points and is the series leader with 23 points. He had previously won the Santa Anita and Oakland handicaps. Twilight Agenda and Sea Catch have 17 points each.
Barry Weisbord, the ACRS founder, likened yesterday's victory by Strike the Gold to "a made-for-TV movie."
The track yesterday started out listed as "good," but was upgraded to fast by the fifth race.
Best Pal's defeat marked his second straight disappointing effort at Pimlico. He finished fifth last year in the Preakness. It was the horse's first losing effort this year after four straight victories in California and at Oaklawn Park.
Perret had won the 1988 Pimlico Special with Bet Twice. Last year he finished sixth with Unbridled. A crowd of 23,121 at Pimlico and the Laurel simulcast center bet $2,851,845, the lowest wagering figure in five years for the Pimnlico Special.