By Norm Wood
Stuart Janney had a feeling his horse would enjoy stretching his legs with a longer race in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs.
Janney is a darn fine read. Air Support took to the 1 1/4-mile distance a little better than his biggest rivals.
After staring at the hind parts of Banned and Street Game in the closing moments of recent graded stakes races, Air Support finally got his revenge Saturday with a photo finish win by a neck over Banned in the $600,000 Virginia Derby, a Grade II turf race.
"This was a race we've been pointing to all season, so everything he's done prior to (the Virginia Derby) was to get us here," said Janney, who owns Air Support. "We thought he would like a little more distance, which he clearly did."
None of the 12 horses in the field had run in a race longer than 1 3/16 miles, but Janney and jockey Alex Solis had a little added motivation with Air Support, which went off at 7-1 odds. He came close to significant wins in May in the Grade II American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs, finishing third to Banned, and in June in the Grade III Hill Prince Stakes at Belmont Park with Solis riding, finishing second to Street Game.
All three horses met again in the 14th running of the Virginia Derby.
Street Game, whose owner, Carl Lizza, died last Friday at the age of 73, opened the race as the 3-1 favorite. Banned was second off the betting board at 7-2, after starting the day as the morning favorite.
"They're all very nice horses," Solis said. "(Air Support) got the best of them.
"He was way better (Saturday than in the previous two races). The distance really suited him. I knew him better today."
Air Support took an approach he had utilized in his three spring season graded stakes starts this year, all of which featured finishes in the money. He worked from the off the pace in the Virginia Derby, falling back as far as 11th in the first half-mile.
"He always likes to take his time the first part (of the race)," Solis said. "I took my time and saved some ground in the first turn. My plan was to start marching from the half-mile pole. I felt like I needed to start going then."
As the horses came out of the far turn and headed toward the front stretch, Street Game held the lead by a half-length over Casino Host. Air Support was in third, a length behind Street Game, and Banned was another length behind in fourth.
Solis worked Air Support behind Casino Host, angling slightly toward the middle of the track. In the end, the extra distance made all the difference.
Air Support, whose trainer, Claude McGaughey, didn't attend the race, took the lead between Banned and Casino Host in the final 1/16th of a mile and held on for the victory over Banned. Casino Host finished third, while Newsdad came in fourth and Street Game faded to fifth.
Air Support, whose sire is Canadian-bred horse Smart Strike (winner in six of eight starts in his career), shipped in Thursday to Colonial Downs from Saratoga. Air Support entered the race with $229,178 in career earnings and three wins in eight starts, His biggest victories came in April in the Grade III Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland, and last October in the Grade III Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont Stakes.
Janney said his horse will return to Saratoga, and will possibly be aimed toward the Grade I Secretariat Stakes, a $400,000 turf race that will be run Aug. 13 at Arlington Park near Chicago.
"There were a lot of good horses in this (Virginia Derby), so you don't come down here thinking that it's your race to lose, but we thought we had a very good chance," Janney said.
"He was more of a stalker (Saturday) than a true come-from-behind horse. It didn't take anything away from his run in the stretch, so that's great."
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