It was a big day for Todd Pletcher even before the Donn Handicap.
Constitution made it an even better one for the trainer when the horse rolled to a front-running victory in the $500,000 Donn on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
“It was a great day,” Pletcher said.
The trainer saddled the winners in three of Saturday’s four graded-stakes races on Gulfstream’s card, and his horse finished third in the fourth one.
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“We were blessed,” Pletcher said. “I thought we were holding a pretty strong hand coming in, and it worked out.”
Did it ever.
After Pletcher-trained Sandiva won the Grade III Suwannee River Handicap and his Mshawish took the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, Constitution jumped on top in the Grade I Donn and held off 6-5 favorite Lea for a 3/4-length victory.
It was Constitution’s first win since March of last year when the colt won the Florida Derby, shortly before an injury knocked him off the Kentucky Derby trail.
“He’s a horse that has a high cruising speed, and Gulfstream suits that style well,” Pletcher said of Constitution, who is now unbeaten in four career starts at the Hallandale Beach oval.
Breaking from the rail, Constitution raced to the lead under jockey Javier Castellano, with stablemate Commissioner tracking closely in second.
But Commissioner, who finished second in last summer’s Belmont Stakes, proved to be no match for Constitution and eventually faded to sixth.
“He just galloped along on the lead and, turning for home, when I asked him, he took off again,” Castellano said.
Lea, who was trying to become the first horse since Cigar in the mid-1990s to win the Donn in back-to-back years, made a run in the stretch but couldn’t get to the winner.
“I like the way he did it [Saturday],” said Castellano, who rode four winners to move within three victories of 4,000 career wins.
Castellano was also aboard Sandiva in the $150,000 Suwannee River Handicap and Mshawish in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. In the latter, he made a gutsy move in late stretch, sending Mshawish through a narrow opening between horses to defeat Slumber by a nose.
But Castellano required no daring tactics to win the Donn.
Because of a lack of speed horse in the 11/8-mile stakes, he decided early on that he would assume early command and let the others try to catch him.
“That’s where I wanted to be, on the lead,” Castellano said. “I had a beautiful post [No.1], and I wanted to take advantage of it.
“My main concern was to try to dictate the pace.”
Constitution, sent off as the 5-2 second choice, was unyielding in the stretch with the money on the line.
Constitution finished in 1:49.51 and paid $7.60 for the victory.
“The horse dictated it,” Castellano said.
Lea’s trainer, Bill Mott, said his horse just didn’t have enough in the tank to catch Constitution.
“We had three-sixteenths of a mile to catch him, and I thought at the eighth pole, it looked like we were going to get him,” said Mott, who was also the great Cigar’s trainer. “But he just didn’t do it.”
It was 41/4 lengths further back to third-place finisher Elnaawi.