Diversify Strikes in Jockey Club Gold Cup, Firenze Fire Wins Champagne

Diversify, inside, led from start to finish in his graded stakes debut to win the $750,000, Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Chelsea Durand/NYRA)

ELMONT, N.Y. – Racing has provided many thrills to Ralph Evans in his approximately five decades as an owner. Nothing has ever come easily.

“A good lightweight trying to fight with heavyweights for 50 years,” he said of his time in the sport. “Occasionally, something good happens.”

Something very good finally happened to Evans when pacesetting Diversify was unrelenting in winning the $750,000, Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes by one length against runner-up Keen Ice on Saturday at Belmont Park to provide the owner with his first Grade 1 triumph.

Evans never envisioned such a level of success when he paid $210,000 for the gelding last November at Keeneland. The New York-bred was 2-for-2 at the time for trainer Rick Violette. Evans has been a long-time client of Violette’s.

“I felt very comfortable with the fact that Rick previously trained him. He certainly had conditions left,” Evans said. “The numbers he ran in his first two races were very competitive.”

Diversify leads into the stretch. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

Diversify has been a revelation since then.

“Early on, I thought he might be distance challenged. I knew he was fast,” Evans said. “But as we went on, we realized the last two races that when he’s on the lead, he’s a tough customer.”

Said Violette, “He’s done nothing but get better from the early summer until now. He’s always been a nice horse, but he certainly jumped into the major leagues here.”

Sired by Bellamy Road, Diversify was coming off an overpowering 11 ½-length romp in the Evan Shipman Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race restricted to New York-breds on Aug. 21 at Saratoga. Although he was unable to run away from six rivals this time, he had plenty left to repel the late charge of Keen Ice. Pavel, a promising 3-year-old testing older horses for the first time, ran third.

The Gold Cup winner qualifies for an automatic berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar, with all expenses paid. Evans was noncommittal about whether Diversity will take advantage of that but said, “It would be no shame if we hit the board in a $6 million race, especially if all expenses are paid.”

$500,000, Grade 1 Champagne Stakes Owner Ron Lombardi and trainer Jason Servis thought long and hard about what the next move should be with promising Firenze Fire.

Servis, known for his conservative approach, was leaning toward the Grade 3, six-furlong Futurity Stakes on Oct. 14 at Belmont Park, noting that their colt probably would be among the top contenders in that $150,000 spot and believing the distance was close to ideal. The homebred son of Poseidon’s Warrior had won the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes at six furlongs on July 22 at Saratoga Race Course.

Firenze Fire (Eclipse Sportswire)

Lombardi, whose style is to swing for the fences, wanted to do exactly that by aiming at the Grade 1 Champagne, contested at one mile.

“I always go against the odds. I’m a risk taker and it paid off,” he said after his initial Grade 1 triumph.

Not surprisingly, the owner won the debate. And, in this case at least, the owner knew better.

Firenze Fire made a huge move around the final turn to defeat Good Magic by a half-length to earn an automatic berth and a fees-paid entry in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar on Nov. 4. Enticed ran third.

Firenze Fire paid $24 for a $2 win wager. He covered the mile in 1:35.91.

The youngster rebounded strongly from the Grade 1 Hopeful, where he weakened to be fourth in that seven-furlong contest on Sept. 4 at Saratoga.

“The horse was coughing going into the race,” Servis noted. “He was flat. He never changed leads. I think it was a throw-out race.”

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. is optimistic his mount can handle two turns in the Juvenile.

“The way he did it today, he relaxed pretty good,” he said. “I think he can do it.”

Not surprisingly, Servis is already fretting about the prospect of a large field in the Juvenile and the possibility their horse might struggle to repeat his big effort in the Champagne.

Lombardi, of course, was already California dreamin’.

“It would be hard to get Ron not to go,” Servis said.

$500,000, Grade 3 Hill Prince Stakes: Yoshida, second in his last two starts in the Grade 2 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes and then the Grade 3 Saranac Stakes at Saratoga, squeezed through a narrow opening on the rail for jockey Manuel Franco to eke out a neck victory against Lucullan. Favored Bricks and Mortar ran third.

“The horse and rider both showed good courage,” said winning trainer Bill Mott. “The rider showed good patience, and when he asked him, he had enough horse to get in there.”

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