ELMONT, N.Y. -- When Oscar Performance broke a step slow and had to run a fairly quick first quarter to attain his customary position at the front of the field early in Saturday's Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational, trainer Brian Lynch was concerned.
But as the race wore on and Oscar Performance was cruising on the lead through six furlongs in 1:14.37, Lynch said he "broke into a big smile."
That smile never left Lynch's face as Oscar Performance continued in front all the way to the wire under Jose Ortiz as he posted a two-length victory in the $1.2 million Derby, affirming that his spring doldrums are behind him.
Oscar Performance, who beat an international field in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, did so again Saturday as Called To The Bar, an Irish-bred who races in France finished second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Kentucky-bred Homesman, who is based in Ireland.
Good Samaritan finished fourth and was followed by the Japanese-bred Yoshida, the tepid 3-1 favorite, Makarios, Whitecliffsofdover, Big Score, Ticonderoga, Senior Investment, and Arklow.
"I said if he's able to dictate his terms, he's going to be tough to catch," Lynch said. "He proved he could get the mile and a quarter. I think he beat a quality field of horses today."
Ortiz rode Oscar Performance to victory as part of a five-win afternoon. In the race before, he won the Grade 2 Suburban on Keen Ice. He capped his huge day with a victory in the 11th and final race on the maiden claimer California Swing. Ortiz also won the first two races on the card, giving him 58 wins for the meet and tying him with his brother Irad Ortiz Jr. for top honors with five days remaining.
Oscar Performance began the year with disappointing efforts in the Transylvania at Keeneland and the American Turf at Churchill Downs, the latter run over soft ground. Oscar Performance bounced back with a front-running victory in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge last month over firm Belmont turf.
Lynch had loved how Oscar Performance trained in the interim and grew concerned when only 1.45 inches of rain fell here Friday. Oscar Performance did win the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes here over yielding turf last fall.
"It had no more give than the Pilgrim last year and it'd been hard and firm all week," Lynch said. "I took a bit of a walk over it this morning and you didn't sink in too far."
The Belmont inner turf course was labeled firm.
Oscar Performance brushed the side of the gate when the doors opened, but Ortiz was able to get him to the front entering the first turn. He had some pressure from Big Score to his outside through a half-mile in 49.48 seconds and 1:14.37 for six furlongs.
On the middle of the turn, Oscar Performance was able to spurt clear and had a 2 1/2-length lead coming to the eighth pole. Called To The Bar tried to run at him in the lane, but was no match.
Oscar Performance, a son of Kitten's Joy owned and bred by John and Jerry Amerman, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.25 and returned $13 as the 5-1 third choice.
"I had to chase him a little bit the first quarter of a mile, but then on the backside he relaxed real well," Ortiz said. "I backed the pace down a little and he was full of run today. When I asked him to go from the quarter pole he exploded."
Called To The Bar got bounced around between horses entering the first turn, but then raced up close in third under Maxime Guyon. He got some running room in the stretch but was simply second-best.
"That was a bit of a shame, but he had a good run," said Carl Brandt, assistant trainer to his wife, Pia. "No excuses really. He ran a great race and the winner won easy."
Trainer Aidan O'Brien has had a horse finish in the money in the Belmont Derby in each of the last four years. Homesman raced right behind Called To The Bar before tipping wide into the stretch and rallying for third.
"The steady pace didn't play to his strengths," said T.J. Comerford, assistant to O'Brien. "He run a great race and I'm sure he can build on it. He came home very well."
* Attendance at Belmont Park on Saturday was 12,667, up 63 percent from last year's crowd of 7,753. Ontrack handle was $3,084,823, up 6.4 percent from $2,898,826 last year. All sources handle was $22,341,422, down 2.7 percent from last year's figure of $22,980,094.