King Zachary breaks nearly 91-year-old track record

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Thomas F. Conway’s King Zachary, under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, patiently stayed off the pace and took over in the final turn, posting his first victory in more than a year and setting a track record that stood for almost 91 years in the process in an 8 1/2-length victory in Thursday’s $100,000 Birdstone for 3-year-olds and up at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Graham Motion, King Zachary won for the first time since capturing the Grade 3 Matt Winn in June 2018 at Churchill Downs, completing the 1 ¾-mile marathon course on a fast main track in a final time of 2:52.97, besting Reigh Count’s previous mark of 2:55 set on September 1, 1928.

“We kept him up here and we thought if he was doing well, we’d give him a shot. I’m glad he proved me right,” Motion said. “Without doubt, he has plenty of talent. [Breaking] a track record from 1928, even though they don’t write the race very often, it’s certainly impressive to do that, and it was the way he did it. When Johnny looked under his legs at the eighth-pole, I felt he had a lot of horse. I thought he looked really comfortable the whole way. When you got Johnny riding, you have to feel confident because he knows where to put them, especially in these longer races which can be a little tricky.”

King Zachary broke well to start the three-turn race and was kept in fifth position as Marconi led the seven-horse field through the opening quarter-mile in 24.19 seconds, and the half in 49.42. Marconi continued on as the pacesetter, with three-quarters in 1:14.65, a mile in 1:39.38 and 1 ¼ miles in 2:04.40.

Velazquez urged King Zachary up, moving into second position at the 1 ¼ mile mark before overtaking Marconi from the outside in the final turn and surged in the straightaway to complete the romp in the record-setting outing.

King Zachary, who was seventh in his first career turf start on July 24 at Saratoga, returned eight days later to triumph back on dirt.

“I kind of had the Birdstone in the back of my mind, but I wanted to run him on grass,” Motion said. “When the grass experiment didn’t work, we went to Plan B. He’s a beautiful horse, he’s absolutely gorgeous. I knew there was talent there and I said to Johnny in the paddock, ‘If this isn’t what he wants to do, I don’t know.’ He acted to me like he wants to go all day. You don’t get many opportunities to run at distances like this.”

Off at 8-1, King Zachary returned $18.80 on a $2 win wager. The 4-year-old Curlin colt won for the first time in his last seven starts, improving his career bankroll to $366,120.

“Last out, we tried him on the grass and he didn’t seem to like it very much,” Velazquez said. “We’ve always known he had talent, and thought that maybe going longer, he’d get better, and that’s what he showed today.”

Marconi, trained by Todd Pletcher, finished 1 ¾-lengths clear of Rocketry to complete the exacta.

“He broke a little slow, but he put me on the lead,” said Marconi jockey Jose Lezcano. “He had a good race and we had the lead most of the way around, but the winner ran big today. He dug in for second.”

Rocketry, the even-money favorite trained by Jimmy Jerkens, was 19 ½-lengths to the good of Patch, the 2017 Belmont Stakes third-place finisher, for third.

Rocketry gave the Birdstone field two entrants who set a near century-old track record at a NYRA track, with his win in the 1 5/8-mile Temperence Hill Invitational in September at Belmont Park breaking Man o’ War’s 98-year-old mark.

Curlin Road, Third Day and Royal Albert Hall completed the order of finish. Turco Bravo was scratched.

The race is named in honor of the 2004 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, Travers and Champagne winner owned by the late Marylou Whitney, the esteemed thoroughbred owner and breeder, celebrated philanthropist and National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame inductee who died at the age of 93 on July 19. Presenting the trophy in the winner’s circle was Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who conditioned Birdstone.

Live racing will resume Friday at Saratoga with a 10-race card, highlighted by the three stakes, including the $750,000 Saratoga Oaks Invitational in Race 9 at 5:51 p.m. Eastern. First post is 1 p.m.

By Paul Wager

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