10/10/2004 11:00PM

Fortunate Damsel wires

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Phil Johnson would have turned 79 last Saturday. On Monday, Johnson's former long-time assistant, Heriberto Cedano, honored his Hall of Fame mentor by saddling Fortunate Damsel to a gate-to-wire victory in the Grade 3, $112,300 at Belmont Park.

Fortunate Damsel was the last stakes winner trained by Johnson, who died Aug. 6. She was the first winner saddled by Cedano, who had worked as an assistant to Johnson for 33 years.

"It's nice to win this race. His birthday was Oct. 9," Cedano said. "Thank God he left me some nice horses. Thank God he gave me the job."

"P.G. was whipping and driving," said Deborah Cedano, wife of Heriberto. She also worked for Johnson for a long time.

Cedano had removed the blinkers from Fortunate Damsel because he was hoping to get the filly to come from off the pace. But in a race void of speed, Fortunate Damsel dragged Javier Castellano to the front and set fractions of 25.72 seconds, 50.51, and 1:13.85 for six furlongs. Fortunate Damsel repelled a midrace challenge from Sabellina and held off a late run from Venturi, the 4-5 favorite, to win by a head. It was one length back to Delta Sensation, who nosed out Go Robin for third.

Fortunate Damsel, a daughter of Runaway Groom owned by Spruce Pond Stable, covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.80 over a firm inner turf. She returned $13 as the second choice.