06/18/2010 11:00PM

Afleet Express scores in Pegasus

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Afleet Express signaled his arrival as an emerging figure in the 3-year-old division with an impressive win Saturday in the at Monmouth Park.

In his stakes debut and first race around two turns, Afleet Express overcame a stumble at the break to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Afleet Again, giving sire Afleet Alex a 1-2 finish in the 1 1/16-miles stakes.

Problems at the start have dogged Afleet Express throughout his career.

"The last race at Belmont was the only time he broke with the field," said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. "All his other races, the starts were disastrous. I don't know why. This wasn't near as bad as the first three starts."

With the poor break, Afleet Express conceded the early lead to Schoolyard Dreams and Jackson Bend, the 9-10 favorite, who dueled through slow fractions of 24.85 and 49.35 seconds.

Javier Castellano moved Afleet Express into contention with a three-wide move on the backstretch, and the colt took a narrow lead on the final turn. He shifted to the rail for the stretch run, holding a secure lead through the lane.

"My main concern was the break," Castellano said. "He broke a little better today and it seems like he's matured in the last two races. He relaxed very well and when I asked him for run, he gave it to me."

The final time was 1:45.44 as Afleet Express paid $6 to win as the second choice of the crowd of 10,142.

Afleet Express is now two in a row, improving to 3 for 5. While encouraged, Jerkens isn't getting too high just yet.

"It's hard to gauge," he said. "The last race at Belmont was big, but I really don't know who he beat. Then today, the track was very, very slow. I've never seen Monmouth Park this slow. I was worried about him going this far on a slow track, but he was classy enough to overcome it."

Once a major fixture on the Meadowlands fall stakes schedule, the Pegasus languished in recent years as it failed to attract high-profile runners.

The shift to Monmouth, and a June date, revived the race. It now serves as a key prep for the $1 million Haskell Invitational on Aug. 1.

That's now something Jerkens will ponder.

"We now have to seriously consider it," Jerkens said. "He handled everything well today. It's not anything etched in stone. We've got races in New York, too, and that's where we come from. There are a lot things to figure out between now and then."

Soaring Empire was third followed by Nacho Friend, Jackson Bend and Schoolyard Dreams.

It was a disappointing result for Jackson Bend in his first race since finishing third in the Preakness.

"He did everything so easily until the three-eighths pole and then he didn't have anything left in the lane," said jockey Jose Lezcano.