Harpers First Ride
Harpers First Ride proved best in the Pimlico Special with Angel Cruz up. Photo by Allison Janezic.

On Thursday at Pimlico, jockey John Velazquez rode Yaupon to victory in the Grade 3 Chick Lang Stakes and afterwards observed that the track was playing to horses on or near the lead.

Seems like Angel Cruz was paying attention.

Cruz put his mount, Harper’s First Ride, in the action of Friday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Pimlico Special from the very first jump. Harper’s First Ride led early and was resurgent late to overcome favored Owendale in the 50th running of the Special. It was the third graded stakes victory of Cruz’s career, and also the third for trainer Claudio Gonzalez.

“No, it doesn’t [get old],” Cruz said after the race. “I just feel so happy and so blessed because to be in this position.”

Gonzalez, Maryland’s perennial leading trainer in recent years, claimed Harper’s First Ride, a son of Paynter bred in Maryland by Sagamore Farm, for $30,000 out of a maiden race last September. He’s owned by Gonzalez’s own MCA Racing. He’s won five times in allowance company since.

“Every race he gets better and better. He likes what we do with him,” Gonzalez said. “He’s very easy for a trainer, because he’s a relaxed horse.”

Harper’s First Ride had been well beaten in his first try in stakes company, in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup in July. But last time out, with Cruz in the irons, he’d earned his first stakes win with an easy score in the Deputed Testamony at Laurel Park.

Harper’s First Ride now has eight wins, and $422,080 in earnings, from 14 career starts.

In today’s contest, Harper’s First Ride, breaking from the outside in a field scratched down to seven, was able to reach the lead, and the rail, entering the first turn. Though he had outside company from Owendale, the 7-10 favorite, throughout — the two were heads apart at the half-mile, three-quarters, and stretch calls — the fractions were moderate and Cruz was just where he wanted to be.

“I settled good in the front, you know,” Cruz said. “I took the lead really easy. I slowed it down. Nobody wanted to go, so I just took the lead and the horse kept digging into stretch.”

The half-mile and three-quarters fractions were 48.41 and 1:12.11 — hardly taxing for horses of this caliber.

Rounding the turn, the lead duo began to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the field. And in the final furlong, Harper’s First Ride put some distance between himself and Owendale.

The final margin was two lengths, with Owendale a half-length ahead of Cordmaker, who finished third. Defending champ Tenfold was fourth.

Harper’s First Ride paid $13.00 to win as the third choice and topped an exacta worth $14.60 for a one-dollar wager.

Running time for the 1 3/16 mile over a fast main track was 1:54.97.

Cruz has become the go-to rider for the Gonzalez barn in recent months — an enviable position with the leading local barn.

“To work for Claudio and him to give me all the chances he gave me, you know, I just take advantage of and do my best,” Cruz said. “As a team, we work hard every day, and for Claudio to get this one is special because this is home.”