In his two races prior to Thursday's Grade III, $100,000 Sycamore Stakes at Keeneland, Holiday Star nearly convinced trainer Graham Motion he was a winner only to have photographic evidence prove otherwise.
The sting of those two photo-finish defeats was eased in indisputable fashion Thursday as Holiday Star overtook 9-5 favorite Red Rifle in deep stretch to win the 11/2-mile Sycamore by a half-length over the Keene-land turf.
Motion, who was at Keeneland for the first time this meet Thursday, picked an ideal day to make an entrance as he won three straight races concluding with the Sycamore.
Were it not for a pair of nose defeats in the John's Call Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 6 and the PTHA President's Cup Stakes at Parx on Sept. 13 — both of which could be mistaken as dead-heats to the naked eye — Holiday Star would have a three-race win streak going himself.
"He's a cool horse. He's a horse I always wanted to try in these longer distance races," Motion said of the 4-year-old gelding. "This horse has been beaten in two brutal photo finishes and the last one took them a few minutes to decide, it was that close."
Owned and bred by George Strawbridge, Holiday Star has not been worse than fourth in six starts since being sidelined from May 2013 to April 2014 because of a fracture. With his grind-it-out running style, the bay son of Harlan's Holiday has found a home in marathon turf races and benefited Thursday from sitting just off Red Rifle as they went the opening half in :53.02 over a course rated soft.
"The pace was so slow, and ... I thought we would settle behind the speed somewhere," said jockey Rosie Napravnik, who also won three races on the card and now has a meet-leading 10 victories. "I thought there might be another horse or two that would at least be a little closer. There weren't. Holiday Star just settled and loped along there as the pace went. He ran an excellent race and was gritty until the end. It was a good race."
Red Rifle held gamely for second after giving way late with Villandry taking the show spot. Final time for the race was 2:33.83.
Even before Holiday Star notched his first graded stakes triumph and fourth win from 13 career starts, he showed he was capable of a jump in class when he ran third to eventual Grade I Arlington Million winner Hardest Core in the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park on July 12.
"If he can step up to that next level, that graded level, there are a lot more opportunities in the longer races," Motion said. "We might give him a break until next spring, but I might do something like the Hollywood Turf Cup (at Del Mar on Nov. 27) if he's doing well. I think he could be a fun horse next year."