Gil Johnston’s Awesome Pearl, overlooked at 35-to-1 in the betting, surged through Saratoga Race Course’s stretch and won a down-to-the-wire battle with Kingdom in Thursday’s $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes.
Ridden by apprentice jockey Kieran Norris, Awesome Pearl prevailed by a nose after the deep-stretch battle with The Fields Stable’s Kingdom. Rock Ford Stables’ Sporty finished third, 6 1/4 lengths farther back, and Bill Pape’s Bluegrass Summer, the 2013 novice champion, was fourth in a talent-packed field of 10.
Trained by Richard Valentine, Awesome Pearl ran the Jonathan Kiser’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:48.26 on a firm inner turf course. He paid $72 to win and triggered a $744 exacta with Kingdom, trained by Elizabeth Voss Murray.
The attraction of a talented young newcomer to U.S. racing and hot jockey Ross Geraghty led Saratoga bettors to make Irv Naylor’s Saint Jerome the 2.30-to-1 favorite off an impressive record in England. The four-year-old Irish-bred gelding went right to the lead under Geraghty and raced well ahead of the pack.
He appeared to be well within himself for more than 1 1/2 miles but slowed suddenly near the end of the final run down Saratoga’s backstretch. Sue Sensor’s Top Striker had been at the front of Saint Jerome’s pursuers and took the lead under leading jockey Willie McCarthy.
Entering the stretch, Carolina Cup winner Top Striker began to tire and jumped the last fence poorly, allowing his pursuers to surge past him. Within the next several strides, Kingdom and Awesome Pearl separated themselves from the rest of the field and battled to the finish line. Kingdom, ridden by Gus Dahl, appeared to have the advantage on the outside, but Norris pushed Awesome Pearl forward to win the head bob.
A five-year-old Awesome Again gelding, Awesome Pearl raced overseas with trainer Sir Mark Prescott and was returned to the United States for the 2013 steeplechase season. He won his maiden victory at the International Gold Cup meet in Virginia and then won an optional allowance hurdle at the Montpelier Hunt Races on Nov. 2.
He began the current season with a second-place finish in the $50,000 Queen’s Cup MPC ’Chase for novices on April 26 and then was a distant sixth in the $75,000 Marcellus Frost Novice Stakes at Nashville’s Iroquois Steeplechase on May 10.
“His run in the Queens Cup was huge. I was very, very proud of him,” Valentine said. “Then, I probably ran him back a little quickly. It was nice to be in a photo with [Kingdom]; Elizabeth Voss has done such a wonderful job taking over for her father [the late Tom Voss]. I thought this race might be a little too short for Awesome Pearl, actually. We hope to see him again at the end of the meet here.”
Norris, who collected his first Saratoga victory, said Awesome Pearl had to adapt to the inner turf course. “He’s more of a hunt-meet horse who likes a mile-and-a-half track, not seven furlong,” last year’s champion apprentice jockey said. “It took him a while to adjust to the tightness of the track, but the farther we got into the race, the better he got. I was stuck in traffic, and once I got an opening I let him go. He just went away from me. He’s a very versatile horse, but I didn’t expect him to win the way he did today.”