11/19/2016 8:36PM

Benwill's nose hits wire first in Mr. Sulu Stakes

Lou Hodges
Benwill, ridden by John Jacinto, noses out Berniestrike in the Mr. Sulu on opening day at Fair Grounds.

Benwill, Nubin Ridge, and Sunny Oak all won $50,000 overnight stakes races for Louisiana-breds on Saturday, opening day at Fair Grounds.

Benwill, trained by Jose Mendez for owner Royce Roberts, got a great trip under John Jacinto to edge longshot Berniestrike in the Mr. Sulu Stakes, a one-mile turf race. String King, the tepid 3-1 favorite, finished decently for third, three-quarters of a length behind Berniestrike, who lost a head-bobbing finish to Benwill.

Benwill, a 7-year-old by Leestown, has been racing since 2011 and has admirably held his form through racehorse middle-age. Benwill lost nine races in a row between the Unbridled Stakes in August 2014 and the John Henry Stakes this past April at Evangeline Downs, but he was a game winner Saturday.

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Saving ground most of the trip while racing in fourth and fifth, Benwill and Jacinto came off the rail in the final furlong and just did get the better of Berniestrike, who had tracked pacesetting Hail to the Nile through modest splits of 24.02 and 48.84 seconds. Benwill ran one mile on firm turf in 1:36.06 and paid $9 to win.

Nubin Ridge, meanwhile, was back racing in Louisiana for the first time since March 2014. Based in New York all of last year and much of 2014, he was claimed in August at Saratoga and claimed again by the Circle H Farms in September at Kentucky Downs, and turned over to trainer Alan Klanfer, for whom he made his first start Saturday.

Second-last in a 13-horse field after a quarter-mile, Nubin Ridge rallied stoutly into a strong pace, found room at every turn, and came between horses in the final furlong under Ashley Broussard to win the Heitai by a head over Jockamo’s Song. Jockamo’s Song, the narrow second choice, was a neck better than 2-1 favorite Sir Ghengis, whose fast pace – 21.77 for the quarter-mile and 45.07 for the first half – helped set the table for Nubin Ridge. The winner, a 6-year-old gelding by Gold Tribute, ran six furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.57 and paid $21.20 to win.

Sunny Oak ($8.60) proved the most decisive stakes winner on the card, stalking the pace in the Happy Ticket and coming home solidly to win by two lengths over pacesetting Smitty’s Cougar. The favored Ramona’s Wildcat, who closed from eighth, was another head back in third.

Trained by Eddie Johnston for owner Keith Plaisance, the 3-year-old filly Sunny Oak was ridden to victory by Miguel Mena. Sunny Oak, turning back to six furlongs for the first time in six starts and almost one year, was timed in 1:10.76. Sunny Oak is a daughter of Giant Oak.