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Spanish Mission prevails in thrilling finish in Jockey Club Derby

Spanish Mission wins the Jockey Club Derby race at Belmont Park and earns an auto entry into the Breeders’ Cup Longiness Turf.

The New York Racing Association’s Turf Triple series for 3-year-old males concluded Sept. 7 at Belmont Park and ended on a high note as Team Valor and Earle Mack’s Spanish Mission went from last-to-first to claim the $1 million Jockey Club Derby Invitational Stakes by a nose.

After taking a wrong step from the gate, A Thread of Blue — who won the second leg of Turf Triple in the Saratoga Derby Invitational Stakes Aug. 4 at Saratoga Race Course — recovered with ease and flew to the lead under Luis Saez.

Pursuing the leader just off the rail was Henley’s Joy, the winner of the series-opening Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes who kept within striking distance of A Thread of Blue as he rated off quarter-mile fractions of :25.23, :50.77, and 1:16.17 through six furlongs.

Still in control by a head as the field entered the stretch, A Thread of Blue felt the pressure from Pedro Cara, who overtook him from the outside at the top of the stretch.

Last on the backstretch, Spanish Mission, who was making his first start on U.S. soil for trainer David Simcock, was tipped out wide by Jamie Spencer on the final turn before being set down for a drive. The son of Noble Mission gained ground progressively before finally linking up with Pedro Cara. The two locked heads and battled down to the wire before a thrilled Belmont crowd. With the finish line in sight, Spanish Mission, the 2-1 favorite, got the bob and was declared the victor by a nose.

“He didn’t break that well but I wasn’t too concerned. I was happy he was relaxed and found his rhythm coming along the backside,” Spencer said.

“Going into the final turn he was giving me all he had. I dropped my right rein and even though I was using the crop, when you drop your reins in a race, it typically signals to the horse that the race is over. I would’ve been mad with myself had we lost but he got back on his game and finished strong. He was a very game horse today.”

Final time for the 1 1/2 miles was 2:27.58 on turf rated firm.

San Huberto finished third followed by A Thread of Blue and Henley’s Joy.

“As the race developed, it was just beautiful to watch,” said Ian Russell, assistant to Simcock. “The further he went, the better he got into it and he just gets his head down. Jamie dropped his rein, but the horse stayed on and kept to his job. He knows his job and the further he goes, the better he’s going to be. He’s a lovely horse for the future.”

The Jockey Club Derby Invitational is a “Win and You’re In” Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race that awards the winner an automatic berth in the Nov. 2Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park.

Irwin said he would talk with Mack before making a final decision, but with Spanish Mission heading back to Europe, it’s unlikely he will run in the Breeders’ Cup.

A winner of the July 11 Group 3 Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket, Spanish Mission was bred in Kentucky by St. Elias Stables out of the Street Cry mare Limonar and is a half brother to stakes winner Mokarris. His win in the Jockey Club Derby Invitational tripled his career earnings to $710,246 and improved his record to 3-1-2 from seven starts.

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series continues on NBC Sports with the Cotillion Stakes from Parx Racing on September 21. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBC.