ELMONT, N.Y. -- In a victory that wasn't as surprising as it was uplifting, Diversify, a New York-bred gelding stepping into open company, carried his speed gate to wire under Irad Ortiz Jr. to win Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
Diversify won as the 7-2 second betting choice by one length over Keen Ice, the 6-5 favorite. He was second by 3 1-4 lengths over Pavel, who was followed, in order, by Good Samaritan, Destin, Rally Cry and Highland Sky.
The win was the first Grade 1 victory for owner Ralph Evans and was the first Grade 1 triumph in 10 years for trainer Rick Violette, who recently underwent surgery for pancreatitis and who a few years ago had been diagnosed with cancer. Violette was not at Belmont Park Saturday, owing to his health issues.
"The good news is it isn't cancer related," Violette said by phone from his New York home.
The win was an emotional one for Evans, who owns the gelding with his daughter Lauren. Ralph Evans has been involved in Thoroughbred racing for 50 years and has had horses with Violette since the early 1990s.
"Rick has had his problems, I, too, have had some health problems," Evans said in the winner's circle. "Rick and I have been together a long, long time. I have never won a Grade 1 so it is emotional from several different positions: Rick's health and the fact we've been doing this a long time.
"A good lightweight fighter trying to fight with heavyweight fighters for 50 years, and occasionally something good happens," Evans said.
The victory earned Diversify a fees-paid berth to the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar, and while he is likely to go, both Violette and Evans said they want to think about it for a few days.
"I'm not going to commit right away, give Ralph a few days to enjoy it," Violette said. "I think he'd like to go."
Evans bought Diversify last November at the Keeneland November sale for $210,000 at Violette's recommendation. Diversify, by Bellamy Road, had won his first two starts for Violette and a partnership headed by WinStar Farm. That partnership was dissolving, which is why Diversify was put through the sale.
Evans thought he was buying a decent New York-bred who had conditions left, but one whom he thought was distance challenged.
Diversify certainly didn't show any distance limitations winning the Evan Shipman Stakes for New York-breds at Saratoga on Aug. 21 at 1 1/8 miles by 11 1/2 lengths, running a fast-time and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 108. By contrast, Keen Ice's lifetime-best figure was a 106.
On paper, the speedy Diversify looked to have a pace advantage in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Breaking from the rail in the Gold Cup, Oritz put Diversify on the lead and set solid fractions of 24.17 for the quarter, 47.74 for the half, and 1:11.42 for six furlongs while maintaining a two-length advantage over the second flight of horses that included Pavel, Destin, and Rally Cry.
Keen Ice, 9 1/2 lengths off the early pace under Jose Ortiz, began to make his move around the far turn. He had moved into second at the five-sixteenths pole and hooked up with Pavel at the quarter pole. Those two ran in tandem for a good part of the stretch, but neither could catch Diversify.
Diversify covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.96 and returned $9.80 to win.
The win was the fourth on the card and third stakes victory on the day for Irad Ortiz Jr., who also won the Grade 1 Champagne on Firenze Fire and the Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational on Disco Partner.
Evans knows the water gets deeper for Diversify in the Classic facing the likes of Arrogate, Gun Runner and Collected.
"It would be no shame to hit the board in a $6 million race, particularly when they're paying your entry fee," Evans said.
Keen Ice's second-place finish marked the sixth time that trainer Todd Pletcher finished second in the Jockey Gold Cup. He has never won the race with 21 starters in 13 runnings.
"No matter what they tell you it's really hard to finish second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup six times," Pletcher said.
Pletcher felt that Keen Ice couldn't sustain the run he made beginning at the half-mile pole, but understood that Jose Ortiz had to move with Diversify cruising on the lead.
"He made up a lot of ground from the half to the quarter pole," Pletcher said. "In a perfect world you'd be able to wait a little longer and sustain that kick."
Both Keen Ice and third-place finisher Pavel are expected to move on to the Breeders' Cup Classic.