On January 4, three-year-old gelding Nic N Jr (Diva Girl, by Saint Ballado) made his career debut in a seven-furlong maiden special weight over the Gulfstream dirt. A dirt sprint made sense as a first race, and made sense in general since all five of his winning siblings had won on dirt, and all but one had won sprints. He went off at 54/1, and his racing career began about as auspiciously as those odds suggested it would. He lagged early, got caught wide, and crossed the wire tenth beaten 23 lengths.
It looked like he needed a change. He got a few today.
He dropped from maiden special weight company to a $35,000 maiden claimer, a straightforward move given how well beaten he was first out. The distance seemed a worthy experiment, too. Now Now Girl, his half-sister by Tiznow, had won a few races at two turns. Curlin has sired no shortage of two-turn runners, too.
But, turf? Grass was an unexpected move, looking just to his closest relatives. None of Nic N Jr’s half-siblings had ever won on grass. Still, the most recent winner on his tail-female line — his third dam, Len’s Determined — was twice a graded stakes winner on turf. She won the 1978 Suwanee River Stakes (GIII) at a mile, and then stretched to nine furlongs to annex the Black Helen Handicap (GII) next out. Three generations hence these seemed gossamer threads, but what was the harm in trying, especially since Curlin has sired some turf runners?
The public was skeptical. They did not send Nic N Jr off at quite the long odds of his debut, but at 22/1, he was still only the seventh choice in a field of thirteen.
Despite being marooned in the second-outermost gate, jockey Corey Lanerie got him inside quickly, and near the rail by the midpoint of the clubhouse turn. They chased seven or eight lengths off the pace early as a group of four disputed the pace in the early stages. Run Saichi settled on the lead down the backstretch, with 7/5 favourite Captain Stan settled at his flank. Nic N Jr remained near the back of the pack down the backstretch, but Lanerie had patience.
Approaching the far turn, he asked Nic N Jr for some run. He started to advance, leaving the rail only to get around One for C J. He got right back on the rail, kept saving ground, and kept advancing on Run Saichi. The rail stayed open, and Nic N Jr was full of run. Approaching the final furlong he was in clear striking distance, and in the final sixteenth he blew past, Ferocious Tiger was making his own late run at the leader on the outside, but that run was only second best: Nic N Jr won by a widening length and a half over Ferocious Tiger, with pacesetter Run Saichi holding third.
Maybe it was the distance, the surface, or just having a race under his belt. Likely, it was a combination of all of those things. No matter what, today’s race was a resounding success for Nic N Jr, and it would be no surprise to see him go two turns on the grass again soon.