Sunday's $250,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. (G1) at Saratoga was expected to showcase the sprinting talents of 3-5 favorite Trappe Shot (Tapit), but Black Swan Stable's Sean Avery (Cherokee Run) muscled in to steal the spotlight in his Grade 1 debut.
An invader from Monmouth Park, the 17-1 shot aggressively seized the early lead, fought down the length of the stretch to keep it, and just held off the sustained challenge of Trappe Shot by a diminishing nose. Thus Saratoga once more lived up to its old moniker of the "graveyard of favorites."
Sean Avery, named for the New York Rangers left winger, was assisted by a track that tended to favor speed all day. Under an enterprising ride by Joe Bravo, the Allen Iwinski trainee hustled to the front from the start and tore through splits of :21 4/5 and :44 2/5. Calibrachoa (Southern Image) and Apriority (Grand Slam) gave chase, while Trappe Shot raced in fourth.
At the top of the stretch, Calibrachoa and Trappe Shot took aim on the leader. Calibrachoa crept closer along the inside, but Sean Avery kept finding enough to turn him back. Although Trappe Shot took longer to strike top gear on the outside, the favorite steadily clawed back the deficit.
Approaching the wire, Trappe Shot appeared ready to snatch the victory, only to have Sean Avery counter his thrust. Trappe Shot was still gaining, but not fast enough. The winner took 1:09 3/5 to complete six furlongs on the good track and sparked mutuels of $36.20, $10 and $6.30.
"The race itself was just so exciting," Iwinski said. "Going right down to the wire. Head-and-head. 'Are we going to get there? Are we beat?' He just hung in. It was just an exciting race, besides the fact it was my first Grade 1 win."
"Really, honestly, I thought Trappe Shot beat us," Bravo admitted. "I really did. At the wire he had the nose, but Sean knew he was there and stuck his head out and didn't want to let him get by. He tries so hard. You have to give Allen Iwinski credit for taking his time and doing the right spots instead of dancing every dance. He really did it the right way."
Trappe Shot's connections were disappointed by his near-miss.
"It's disappointing to lose because this was a Grade 1 race," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said, "and it means so much to a stallion's potential. The post position (8), obviously, had us racing wide. The track was favoring speed. He (jockey John Velazquez) said everything was against us; speed on the inside and he had to use him hard and ask him twice.
"A jump before and a jump after (the wire), we're a winner. It was a tough loss. Still, he ran great for what he had to do."
"My trip was good," Velazquez said of his view aboard Trappe Shot. "He just didn't get there. He actually broke good, but he wasn't fast enough to be close early, so I had to use him a bit because I didn't want to drop too far back. He finished, but the horse on top never stopped, either. Everything was against him today. Speed was good on the inside today, and he was out in the middle of the racetrack. I wasn't sure if I got there or not. He ran well, though."
Trappe Shot had 1 3/4 lengths to spare over third-placer Calibrachoa, with Apriority another 3 1/4 lengths back in fourth. Noble's Promise (Cuvee) checked in fifth, followed by Hamazing Destiny (Salt Lake), Bank Merger (Consolidator) and Atta Boy Roy (Tribunal).
Sean Avery's biggest victory improved his record to 10-6-1-2, $338,180. The bay gelding started out with Iwinski as a juvenile in 2008, finishing third to eventual multiple Grade 2 winner Munnings in his career debut at Saratoga. Subsequently transferred to Michael Hushion for his sophomore campaign, he cleared his maiden and entry-level allowance conditions, but was sidelined after a sixth in the 2009 Fall Highweight H. (G3). Sean Avery resurfaced this spring after his lengthy layoff.
Reunited with Iwinski, Sean Avery compiled a three-race winning streak, capped by an 11 3/4-length romp in the June 5 Longfellow S. at Monmouth. His skein was snapped last time out when runner-up in the July 4 Mr. Prospector S. at the same venue.
Sean Avery was bred by Darley in Kentucky and purchased for $30,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The five-year-old is out of the winning Forest Wildcat mare Latin Lynx, making him a half-brother to the stakes-placed W W American (Quiet American); current two-year-old Stayclassysandiego (Rockport Harbor), third in the July 16 Landaluce S.; and a 2011 colt by Colonel John. Latin Lynx is herself a half-sister to Zip Quik (City Zip), the runner-up in the 2009 Saratoga Special S. (G2).