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The Chad Brown-trained In Italian won the 2023 Just A Game Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park with a definitive gate-to-wire trip. Is the 5-year-old Dubawi mare currently America’s best turf mile horse? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Owner Peter Brant enjoyed success for a second consecutive year in the race named for his 1980 Champion Grass Mare Just a Game when In Italian won the Grade 1 turf mile worth $500,000 for older and fillies and mares traveling one-mile on the Widener turf course at Belmont Park.
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Trained by four-time Eclipse Award-winner Chad Brown, who saddled Brant’s Regal Glory to victory last year as part of a campaign that saw her earn Champion Grass Mare honors, In Italian was an easy wire-to-wire winner under Irad Ortiz, Jr. after finishing third in this event last year. It marked the Dubawi mare’s fourth trip to the winner’s circle in a top-level event, and second this year after winning Keeneland’s Grade 1 Jenny Wiley in April for her seasonal bow.
“That was a nice race last year with Regal Glory, and this mare is spectacular,” said Brant. “She’s probably as good as anyone we’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. Irad followed Chad’s instructions, which were to stay out there in front and try to make it as easy as possible. She pretty well controlled the race, which was nice because there were some very nice fillies in this field. I’m very fortunate. This is her second Group One this year and I hope she continues on.”
Away sharply from the inside post, In Italian quickly put two lengths between her and the pair of Wakanaka and the slow-starting Spendarella, who battled for second position as In Italian marked an opening quarter-mile in 24.47 seconds over the firm footing. New Year’s Eve, who also broke a step slow under Luis Saez, advanced up the rail to come into contention midway down the backstretch with the Brown-trained Speak of the Devil running rank on the outside path in last.
In Italian comfortably marked a half-mile in 47.95 as Ortiz, Jr. peeked back to see Spendarella making her bid to the outside of a retreating New Year’s Eve. There was little need for panic for Ortiz, Jr., who still had a tight hold on In Italian as the field rounded the turn and made its way into the stretch with Spendarella and Wakanaka ranging up on the outside.
Ortiz, Jr. opened his hands at the top of the lane and In Italian responded strongly, kicking clear from an improving Spendarella and widening her margin when shown a left-handed crop by Ortiz, Jr at the eighth pole. Wakanaka found her best stride late and made a lunge at Spendarella with Speak of the Devil in between foes, but there was no reeling in In Italian, who crossed the wire 3 3/4 lengths in front in a final time of 1:34.
Spendarella, the 2022 New York-bred Horse of the Year, persevered to the wire to hold onto place honors by one length over Wakanaka. New Year’s Eve and Speak of the Devil completed the order of finish.
Brown, who won this event for a record sixth time in the past seven runnings, praised the ride from Ortiz, Jr. and said In Italian’s sharpness from the gate is among her best weapons.
“In the post parade, Mr. Brant and I were speaking and he mentioned how good that she breaks. Of course, she broke well again,” Brown said. “The plan was if she could break well, to get out in front and off the rail so the horses behind her had to make a decision to either challenge a very fast horse pretty wide or you’re going to go up inside of her, which is not a great option either. I think Irad executed that well.”
In Italian provided Ortiz, Jr. with his third Just a Game triumph, adding to scores with the Brown-trained A Raving Beauty  and Newspaperofrecord . The four-time Eclipse Award-winning rider said In Italian is especially professional.
“She’s really nice. I was a good passenger,” said Ortiz, Jr. “She did all the work. I feel like she was a little sharper today than last start and she just came out of there like a shot. I took her off the rail to keep her relaxed. I tried to sit on her and not move. She did [relax] and I let her do her thing close to the quarter-pole and she did the rest.”
Both Brown and Brant expressed a desire to target the nine-furlong Grade 1, $500,000 Diana on July 15 at Saratoga Race Course, a race In Italian won last year by 1 1/2 lengths for her first Grade 1 triumph.
“I’d say if she’s healthy and comes out of it well, the spacing sure works for us,” said Brown. “She has no problem with the distance like you saw last year. As long as she breaks well in these races, she’s hard to beat.”
Bred in Great Britain by Fairway Thoroughbreds, In Italian banked $275,000 in victory while improving her lifetime record to 11-7-3-1. She returned $2.40 on a $2 win ticket as the 1-5 mutuel favorite.
Tyler Gaffalione, the pilot aboard runner-up Spendarella, said the Graham Motion-trained daughter of Karakontie ran courageously after a bobble at the start.
“It was a big effort,” said Gaffalione. “She stumbled coming away from there and was behind the eight-ball a little bit. She gathered herself nicely and traveled good. She kicked nicely and fought to keep second when the fillies came to her. It just wasn’t her day today.”
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