10/22/2016 6:24PM

Royal Posse upsets Governor Malibu in sloppy Empire Classic


ELMONT, N.Y. - Royal Posse isn’t just a two-turn pony.

Royal Posse ended an eight-race losing streak in races contested around one turn with a decisive 3 1/2-length victory over favored Governor Malibu in Saturday’s $300,000 Empire Classic at sloppy Belmont Park.

The Empire Classic was the richest race on an 11-race Empire Showcase Day program that, unfortunately, was decimated by rain that limited the eight stakes races to 53 starters after scratches. The two scheduled turf stakes - the Mohawk and Ticonderoga - were moved to the main track.

The card was almost scrapped after the second race when the jockeys met with management to voice concerns about the condition of the track. But the track maintenance crew went over the surface before the Iroquois Stakes. The jockeys rode that race and then agreed to ride the remainder of the card.

Needless to say, horses with an affinity for an off track had the advantage, and Royal Posse had a 3-4-0 record from nine starts over wet surfaces.

Royal Posse, a 5-year-old gelding by Posse, has been a model of consistency, having finished first or second in his 13 starts before the Empire Classic. The last 12 of those races have come since trainer Rudy Rodriguez claimed him for $20,000 on behalf of Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables and Gary Aisquith in May 2015.

Perhaps the only blemish was that Royal Posse had most of his success in two-turn races. His last victory in a one-turn race was Oct. 4, 2014, when he won an off-the-turf New York-bred allowance race in the slop.

Royal Posse rallied from 12 lengths back to win the Evan Shipman at Saratoga on Sept. 2.

Saturday, he broke sharply and put Irad Ortiz Jr. right into the race, sitting third, 1 1/2 lengths off the pace established by Wake Up in Malibu, who went a half-mile in 48.61 seconds while being pressed by Hit It Once More.

Around the turn, Hit It Once More struck the front, but Royal Posse had him in his sights. Royal Posse struck the front at the quarter pole and it was at that point Ortiz looked behind him looking for the competition.

Nobody really threatened him and Royal Posse glided to the wire 3 1/2 lengths in front. Governor Malibu, last for the opening half-mile, rallied for second, 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Empire Dreams, last year’s Empire Classic winner.

Pax in Terra got fourth and was followed, in order, by Good Luck Gus, Clifton Pleasure, and Wake Up in Malibu. Sea Raven scratched.

Royal Posse, second in this race last year, covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.15 and returned $7.90 as the second choice.

“He broke sharp, and it’s hard to come from off the pace today, so we don’t take anything away from him that came easily,” Ortiz said. “He loves the sloppy track. We let him be comfortable wherever he was, happy, and he gave me that run.”

Rodriguez said the Belmont track was similar to the sloppy Gulfstream strip that Royal Posse won the Claiming Crown Jewel over last December.

“He’s a very, very game horse," Rodriguez said. "When I see him close to the pace I was like ‘wow.’ He wants to run all day. You got to give a lot of credit to Irad, because he didn’t take him back.”

Governor Malibu was far back early. Joel Rosario said he had to ride him early on to just get position. After saving ground for the first six furlongs, Governor Malibu went outside, then dove back to the inside in the stretch and got up for second.

“I rode him to try and keep him a little closer, it seemed like it took a long time getting him going,” Rosario said. “If I was a little closer it probably would have been better.”

Christophe Clement, the trainer of Governor Malibu, said he thought his horse might have been compromised by the speed-favoring nature of the sloppy surface.

“I thought he ran okay, second-best on the day,” he said. “The track was very speed favoring all day long. He came from way out of it. I don’t think he ran a bad race, we got beat.”