10/08/2016 5:11PM

Practical Joke noses out Syndergaard in Champagne

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Chad Brown collects his third graded stakes win of the card when Joel Rosario guides Practical Joke (1) to a narrow win over Syndergaard in the Champagne.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Baseball isn’t the only game of inches.

Fans of the horse Syndergaard  -  including the New York Mets pitcher for whom he was named and who was in attendance Saturday at Belmont Park - were reminded of that as Practical Joke, after a furlong battle, got his nose down on the wire in front of Syndergaard to win the Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne.

The victory was one of three graded stakes that trainer Chad Brown won on Saturday’s card at Belmont. Practical Joke earned an automatic berth into the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita but he is not Breeders’ Cup nominated and his connections - owner Seth Klarman and Bill Lawrence - would have to pay a $100,000 nomination fee. After that, his shipping expenses would be picked up by the Breeders’ Cup through the Win and You’re In program.

Practical Joke overcame a slow start as, breaking from the rail, he took a left-hand turn and nearly went into the opening between the chute and the main track. Jockey Joel Rosario straightened him out, saved all the ground he could for more than six furlongs before tipping his horse off the rail turning for home.

Syndergaard, under John Velazquez, had set torrid fractions of 22.74 seconds for the quarter-mile, 44.63 for the half, and 1:08.76 for six furlongs while being hounded by Big Gray Rocket.

Syndergaard disposed of Big Gray Rocket at the three-sixteenth pole but was soon confronted by Practical Joke. The pair raced in lockstep through the final furlong and it was going to come down to a head bob, with this one going to Practical Joke.

“He got a beautiful pace setup but he had a terrible break as well,” said Brown, who trains Practical Joke for Seth Klarman and Bill Lawrence. “He showed how good a horse he is. The runner-up is a very good horse as well. He deserves a lot of credit for fighting as well as he did. It was a close bob at the end but I’m glad we got it.”

It was 6 1/2 lengths back to Favorable Outcome - also trained by Brown. He was followed, in order, by Big Gray Rocket, Thirst for Victory, and Lookin At Blessing.

Practical Joke, who added the Champagne to his narrow victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, covered the mile in 1:34.68 and returned $7.90 to win.

Rosario, who was riding Practical Joke for the first time, said he could sense the horse wanted to do something mischievous coming out of the gate. He said the break cost him a few lengths but he thought he would benefit from an anticipated quick pace.

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“I was going to be stalking it looked like because it looked like on paper there was a lot of speed,” Rosario said. “I was planning to take my time with him and keep coming with that long run he has.”

There was a bit more buzz surrounding the Champagne as the presence of Syndergaard, the pitcher, drew a lot of interest from fans who chanted “No-ah, No-ah” when they saw him in the paddock.

Syndergaard, sipping a bottle of Corona, watched the race from the box seats and thought the horse had won, raising his hands in victory.

He was not nearly as frustrated, however, as Todd Pletcher, the colt’s trainer.

“It was just unfortunate Mike never gave us a breather,” said Pletcher, referring to Mike Smith, the rider of Big Gray Rocket. “It set up well for somebody to come from off the pace. I thought the horse ran very courageously. Frustrating loss.”