Right about the time John Velazquez put his mount, Jack Milton, in position to let the colt take over during Friday's Transylvania Stakes, the Hall of Fame jockey got a reminder that a little more developing might be needed before leaving him to his own devices.
"As soon as he took the lead, he started waiting and I was thinking, 'Oh, don't do this to me, buddy,'" Velazquez said.
Thankfully for the connections involved, Jack Milton's fortitude ended up outweighing his inexperience in his graded stakes debut. After engaging with the late-running Up With the Birds in deep stretch, Jack Milton fought on to finish a neck in front in the 11⁄16-mile turf test, which highlighted the opening day of the Keene-land Spring Meet.
Sent off as the 5-2 favorite by the 22,921 in attendance who took advantage of the near-perfect weather, Jack Milton was making just his third career start, having debuted in the winner's circle at Gulfstream on Jan. 12.
Considering the Todd Pletcher trainee hasn't been on the lead as early as he was coming off the turn for home Friday, Velazquez found himself having to give an on-the-fly lesson on how to prevail in a heated battle.
"The last couple times I've been on him he's always gotten the lead late, and he's still young," said Velazquez, who is slated to ride Verrazano for Pletcher in Saturday's Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. "I saw the other horse coming way out there so I started drifting little by little to see if my horse could get into a little fight with him, and he actually did. He put in a really nice fight and held on in there."
Owned by Gary Barber, Jack Milton headed to the Grade III Transylvania off a runner-up finish in a 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 9. The dark bay colt got involved in the running earlier on Friday, sitting in the outside path fourth just behind Star Contender, who pushed the issue on the front with Redwood Kitten through opening fractions of :23.41 and :47.43.
Velazquez let Jack Milton out a notch approaching the final turn, ranging up three wide outside of Star Contender and overtaking Redwood Kitten, who was on the inside for a half-length advantage at the head of the lane.
Up With the Birds came with huge strides on the far outside after angling out entering the stretch but couldn't get to the winner, who finished in 1:41.80 over a course rated firm.
Redwood Kitten held for third, 2 lengths behind Up With the Birds.
"He's always been a horse with a lot of talent, obviously running him in a Grade III third start out we figured he was good enough," said Whit Beckman, assistant to Pletcher. "We felt there was still a lot of room for improvement off his last race and he seemed like he was coming in pretty strong."
keeneland Spring Meet
When: Through April 26, with 16 days of racing (No racing on Mondays and Tuesdays)
Post time: 1:05 p.m. (Gates open at 11 a.m.)
Admission: $5 per person. Children 12 and younger are admitted free.
TV: All races live on TVG
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.