a-p-indianLEXINGTON, Ky. – It took every ounce of effort and a track record, but A. P. Indian stayed unbeaten in 2016 when edging Limousine Liberal in a thrilling 164th running of the Grade 2, $250,000 Phoenix Stakes on Friday, opening day of the Keeneland fall meet.

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After a prolonged stretch duel, A. P. Indian was a nose in front on the wire when completing the six-furlong distance in 1:08.43 over a fast track. The hard-fought victory was the sixth in as many starts this year for the 6-year-old A. P. Indian, who now heads to the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita as one of the obvious favorites.

“He’s just been a champion all along,” said winning jockey Joe Bravo. “What makes him so special is he listens. He breathes, he relaxes. It wasn’t like we were out there running against nothing. My hat’s off to the horse who took us to the wire. He was really tough.”

A .P. Indian returned $2.80 as a heavy favorite in a field of seven older horses. Limousine Liberal, a 6-1 shot ridden by Jose Ortiz, was another 3 1/2 lengths before Ami’s Flatter, the 9-2 second choice who was up in the final jump to get third over Alsvid.

Before an ontrack crowd of 19,882, and under sultry conditions for early October, The Great War set the pace to the quarter pole while tracked closely by Limousine Liberal to the outside and A .P. Indian along the rail. After straightening away, the two chasers pulled away from the others.

“I was worried since the three-eighths pole when he got shuffled back,” said Arnaud Delacour, who trains A. P. Indian at Fair Hill in northern Maryland for the gelding’s breeders, the Green Lantern Stables of Richard Masson. “I knew it was going to be tough to make up ground. He did a great job.”

Delacour scratched A. P. Indian last weekend from the Grade 1 Vosburgh when the track came up sloppy at Belmont Park. A .P. Indian, by Indian Charlie, now has won 11 of 17 career starts and earned $1,262,434.

The Phoenix is a Win and You’re In event toward the BC Sprint, but A .P. Indian already had his free ticket after capturing the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga on Aug. 27. That means the narrow defeat was even more costly for Limousine Liberal than the difference between the first- and second-place shares of the Phoenix purse. Ben Colebrook trains the 4-year-old Limousine Liberal for K.K. Ball.

“When [A .P. Indian] went by me, my horse dug back in,” said jockey Jose Ortiz. “I think one more stride and he would have gotten him.”

While the time was quick, this is just the fifth meet at Keeneland since Polytrack was replaced by a new dirt surface and all track records began anew.

The attendance was a record for a Friday opening of the fall meet.

The $2 exacta (1-5) paid $8.20, the $1 trifecta (1-5-3) returned $13.30, and the 10-cent superfecta (1-5-3-4) was worth $3.88.