03/05/2016 5:49PM

Mei Ling leads wire to wire in Heavenly Prize

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Debra Roma
Mei Ling, adding blinkers, scores by 3 1/4 lengths in the Heavenly Prize Invitational, providing jockey Jose Ortiz with one of his four wins on the nine-race card.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - After Mei Ling finished third as the 2-5 favorite in the Maryland Racing Media Stakes at Laurel Park three weeks ago, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to change things up.

Pletcher added blinkers to the 5-year-old Mei Ling’s equipment and went without a workout leading up to Saturday’s $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational at Aqueduct.

Those changes - combined with an uncontested lead over a speed-favoring track - enabled Mei Ling to record a 3 1/4-length victory in the Heavenly Prize. Saythreehailmary’s won a three-way photo for second by a neck over Pangburn and Include Betty, who dead-heated for third.

Cali Star finished fifth and was followed by Storied Lady and House Rules.

Cali Star stumbled about a sixteenth of a mile past the wire, unseating jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Ortiz was removed from the track on a stretcher, missed his mount in the eighth race, but came back to ride Shagaf to victory in the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham.

Mei Ling, a daughter of Empire Maker owned by Barry Schwartz, won for the fourth time in 18 starts.

With an inside speed bias having been established through the first six races, Jose Ortiz was intent on making the lead from post 2. Ortiz was able to do that going into the first turn and was surprisingly unchallenged while opening up a four-length advantage through an opening quarter in 24.17 seconds and a half-mile in 48.05.Cali Star, who figured to show speed, chased from second under Irad Ortiz Jr., along with Pangburn.

Mei Ling remain unchallenged throughout and cruised to victory while running 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.07. She returned $9.60 to win.

“She got bumped around at the start.  I wasn’t sure she was going to get through,” said Byron Hughes, Pletcher’s New York assistant. “Jose did a good job getting her through, had her at a good pace, and I was happy with it.”

Hughes said Pletcher decided to put the blinkers on Mei Ling because the mare “seemed to be losing focus down the stretch,” said Hughes. “I think the blinkers helped sharpen her up down the stretch.”

Ortiz and Hughes both said that going a quicker early  pace than Mei Ling did in the Maryland Media also helped.

“She’s a better filly when she’s able to run away and we were able to break good and get the lead along the rail,” said Ortiz, who won four races on the card.