04/11/2015 2:30PM

Protonico bounces back strongly in Ben Ali

Coady Photography
Protonico, ridden by Javier Castellano, cruises to a five-length victory as the favorite in the Ben Ali.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Protonico appeared poised to become another player in the handicap ranks this year for Todd Pletcher, winning a pair of graded stakes and picking up a Grade 1 placing late in 2014. However, in a baffling start to this season, he was never a factor and was eased in the Donn Handicap on Feb. 7.

In the following weeks, Protonico signaled that he was ready to bounce back.

“He trained like a gorilla,” assistant trainer Tristan Barry said. “He tore his way around the track every morning, and was borderline obnoxious in the afternoons.”

Protonico ($3.60) ran to his behavior, leading throughout to roar to a five-length victory as the favorite in the Grade 3, $150,000 Ben Ali Stakes on Saturday afternoon at Keeneland.

“Not at all,” Barry said, when asked if an explanation for the Donn had ever been uncovered. “Just a complete head-scratcher. Throw it out, and he was back today to his normal self.”

Breaking from post 5 in the field of six, Javier Castellano got favored Protonico ($3.60) away in good order and cleared the inside horses to save ground into the first turn. With Irish You Well shadowing him on the outside, Protonico comfortably ticked off honest fractions of 23.95 seconds, 47.49, and 1:11.21.

Protonico shook off his rival and kicked clear entering the stretch, with the outcome never in doubt from there as he continued to extend his lead to the final margin of five lengths. Protonico stopped the clock in 1:48.79 for the nine furlongs on the main track rated fast.

Neck ‘n Neck came on to be a clear second over Ami’s Holiday, with Irish You Well another 8 1/2 lengths back in fourth.

Protonico, who has now won 5 of 10 career starts, picked up victories in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes and Grade 3 Discovery Handicap last year, and also finished second by a half-length to Hoppertunity in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. Barry said a next target for Protonico has yet to be selected. 

“I don’t know, exactly,” Barry said. “Now that we’re back on track, we’ll make a plan and go from there.”