It had been a while since Hunter O'Riley last visited the winner's circle, but that hardly mattered June 22 when the 6-year-old gelding returned to top form at a highly opportune time.
Sean Shay and Michael J. Ryan's son of Tiz Wonderful rallied strongly in the stretch and recorded a neck victory over Zulu Alpha to capture the $310,000, Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park for his first victory since July 29, 2017.
"We're thrilled to get him back in form and we have some races penciled in for him for the rest of the year that we are very excited about," trainer Jimmy Toner said. "Coming into this race he trained as well as he ever has, so I was confident going into the race that he would run good."
Hunter O'Riley was winless in three 2019 starts before the 66th edition of the U.N., with his best finish coming in a fourth-place finish in the William L. McKnight Stakes at Gulfstream Park Jan. 26.
They were his first starts since he was sidelined by an injury to a ligament in his pastern suffered after a ninth-place finish in the Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes, his lone start in 2018.
Toner credited an aggressive ride by Paco Lopez as a key element in the 14.10-1 victory.
"Paco rode him great. I'm thrilled to death," Toner said. "He tends to drop into a gallop. He always finishes but he needs to have someone who keeps him in the race all the way. That was the key to him being able to finish like that."
Hunter O'Riley was seventh in the field of eight in the early stages while saving ground, but then was taken to the outside on the final turn and then closed strongly while widest in the stretch to collar multiple graded stakes winner Zula Alpha, who had forged to a half-length lead at the eighth pole under Channing Hill.
"At the half-mile, I started to get him outside and then when I asked him to run, he really gave me what he has. I had good position the whole way. I liked where I was. He fired a little slowly but then he got rolling," said Lopez.
Channel Cat, the 1.90-1 favorite, was third, a half-length behind Zulu Alpha.
Final time for the 1 3/8 miles on a turf course rated good was 2:17.10.
The victory was the fifth in 22 starts for Hunter O'Riley and increased his earnings to $620,293.
Toner said the next start for Hunter O'Riley would most likely be the Bowling Green Stakes at Saratoga Race Course July 27, which, appropriately enough, served as the gelding's last win in 2017, before his Jersey Shore comeback on Saturday.