A. Stevens Miles Jr.’s homebred Neck ’n Neck had one horse beat in the early stages of the 20th running of the Grade III, $110,400 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs, but put in a strong rally on the final turn from the outside and powered home in the stretch for a convincing 2 ¼-length win over Fort Loudon.
Brian Hernandez Jr., toting the 120-pound starting high weight, rode the winner for trainer Ian Wilkes. The two will team again Saturday at Santa Anita in an attempt to land the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) with Whitney Handicap (GI) champ Fort Larned, the 5-1 co-second choice on the morning line.
Neck ’n Neck, fresh off a length victory in the $513,600 Indiana Derby three weeks ago at Hoosier Park, was facing older rivals for the first time in the Ack Ack. The 3-year-old was unhurried in hand early on and sat well back of Fort Loudon and 7-5 favorite Dominus, who battled for the lead through fractions of :23.02 and :46.95. Dominus had a slight advantage on the turn for home, but Neck ’n Neck made a sweeping five-wide move with three-sixteenths of a mile to go and edged clear in the stretch.
Neck ’n Neck paid $5.40, $3 and $2.60 as the 8-5 second betting choice. Fort Loudon prevailed in a four-way photo for second and returned $4.20 and $3. Stealcase was a head back of the runner-up in third and paid $3.80. Seruni was a neck back in fourth and Dominus was another neck behind in fifth. Zimmer and Grand Berry-ARG completed the order of finish. Good Lord was scratched.
The dark bay or brown son of Flower Alley, a Kentucky-bred, banked $67,080 for the win and improved his record to 14-5-2-0—$676,856. Four of his five victories have come at Churchill Downs in six starts, including a 7 ¼-length romp in the Matt Winn (GIII) in June.
Prior to the race, Wilkes mentioned that Neck ’n Neck would use the Ack Ack as a springboard to the Grade I, $400,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) on Friday, Nov. 23.
Racing at Churchill Downs continues Saturday at 12:40 p.m. (all times Eastern) with the 27th running of the Grade II, $150,000-added Chilukki, a one-mile race for fillies and mares serving as the featured ninth race at 4:37 p.m.
In addition to the live action, Churchill Downs will simulcast the second of the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships from Southern California’s Santa Anita on Saturday. A simulcast of the 12-race Championship Saturday card from Santa Anita will begin at 1:05 p.m. and the nine Breeders’ Cup races will cover Races 4-12 from 2:50 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
ACK ACK QUOTES
Brian Hernandez Jr., jockey on Neck ’n Neck, winner: “He’s really turning into a great horse. I actually took him a little further back going into the turn just so I could get outside. He was always there for me and when I called on him at the top of the lane he kind of spurted away from them. He seems to be getting better with each start.”
Q. Excited for Saturday (tomorrow’s) mount on Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? “I’m very excited and I think now we can be excited since we’ve got Neck ’n Neck’s race out of the way. We know we’ve got one of the fastest horses in the country. We just have to let him do his thing.”
Q. Is today’s win a good omen of things to come tomorrow? “Hopefully this sets us up right. We got the one today, which we thought we would. Now we’re set up for tomorrow – the big one.”
Jesus Castanon, rider on Fort Loudon, runner-up: “He’s a very tough horse – he loves to fight. He broke out of the gate real good and (trainer) Nick Zito had him perfect. Basically he was right out there where we wanted him to be, but Neck ’n Neck is a nice horse, too. My horse gave him a good race.”
Miguel Mena, rider on Stealcase, third: “My horse ran big. It was a good race. He broke good and he had a nice and clean trip. He just got outrun at the end.”
Q: He looked like was going to slip through on the rail in upper stretch …“He went through that hole nice, but he just couldn’t’ get there. But he tried hard.”
Shaun Bridgmohan, rider on Dominus, fifth as 7-5 favorite: “I thought I was sitting pretty good, but he didn’t come up with anything extra for me when I needed it. He travelled good and I was in a good spot the whole way, but I needed a little finishing kick from him and he just leveled off and ran even the last part of it.”
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