06/18/2017 7:04PM

Ballagh Rocks holds off Projected in Poker Stakes

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Joe Labozzetta
Ballagh Rocks paid $8.20 in winning the Poker Stakes at Belmont on Sunday.

After Ballagh Rocks finished seventh in the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, his connections debated whether to run in a $100,000 stakes at Canterbury or Sunday’s Grade 3, $300,000 Poker Stakes at Belmont Park.

The Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, without hesitation, told owner Jerry Crawford, “we’re running in the Poker.”

Mott made the right call as Ballagh Rocks, benefitting from a smart and aggressive ride by Jose Lezcano, held off the even-money favorite Projected to win the Poker by a neck. It was four lengths back to Night Prowler in third and three-quarters back to Catapult in fourth as trainer Chad Brown runners finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Bolting finished last. Lubash was scratched.

The win was the fifth from 12 starts, but first in a stakes, for Ballagh Rocks, a 4-year-old son of Stormy Atlantic owned by Donegal Racing, headed by Jerry Crawford.

Crawford, who flew in from Iowa for the race, had to withstand a stewards’ inquiry into the stretch run as Lezcano tightened things up on Projected and Joel Rosario late, but never made contact. Rosario did not lodge an objection.

Braulio Baeza, the New York Racing Association steward, said Rosario “never stopped riding.”

“Memo to NYRA, to the stewards, don’t do that to a 67-year-old man,” Crawford said in a post-race interview. “I mean I could have gone down right there on the racetrack. I didn’t see any contact so couldn’t imagine there would be a problem.”

On paper, it appeared the biggest problem Ballagh Rocks would have is the seeming lack of pace in the race. But Mott had instructed Lezcano to give Ballagh Rocks a vigorous warmup and have him closer to the pace than normal.

Lezcano had Ballagh Rocks in second, about three lengths behind Catapult, who, under Jose Ortiz, set fractions of 23.03 seconds for the quarter and 46.12 for the opening half-mile. Rosario had Projected in third along the inside. After a half-mile Rosario began to move on Projected, but Lezcano moved simultaneously to keep Projected hemmed in. Rosario had to steady Projected approaching the quarter pole, losing some momentum.

In the stretch, Ballagh Rocks had a length lead and Rosario decided to dive to the inside. Projected was gradually gaining on Ballagh Rocks, whom Lezcano brought closer to Projected nearing the wire in order to see his rival, and he dug in.

“Toward the wire I knew [Projected] was close, but I was confident I had enough horse,” Lezcano said. “I was just focused on riding through to the finish.”

Ballagh Rocks, who gave Mott his fourth win in the Poker, covered the mile over yielding turf in 1:34.98 and returned $8.20 as the second choice.

The New York Racing Association announced a crowd of 12,912 for the Father’s Day program.