Ron Cushing drives Kenrick (4) for the win beating out Heath Campbell on Bet You for the Walter Hight race win at the Skowhegan State Fair on Saturday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

SKOWHEGAN — Ron Cushing knew he had the horse. All he needed was an opportunity.

With time slipping away in the Walter H. Hight Memorial Pace, he got it. Cushing and horse Kenrick jumped ahead of defending champion and favorite JJ’s Jet on the final turn, then held on through the homestretch to win the annual one-mile race at Skowhegan Raceway.

“I was a little worried about being caught, because JJ just doesn’t quit. He keeps coming on the outside,” Cushing said. “It was a good trip. It worked out really well.”

Kenrick, which was brought in from New Zealand only four months ago, won with a time of 1:54.2. JJ’s Jet was second, Cherokee Ranger was third and Steuben Magic Ride was fourth. Bet You, the 2016 winner who set the pace through the first half of the race and into the second, stumbled with a quarter of a mile to go and finished fifth.

Ron Cushing drives Kenrick (4) for the win beating out Heath Campbell on Bet You (2) for the Walter Hight race win Saturday at the Skowhegan State Fair. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s very exciting. The horse has been very consistent,” trainer Heidi Gibbs said. “We weren’t expecting to win today. You go out always hoping, but you never expect.”

Cushing, who set the track record in 2014 driving Achilles Blue Chip, knew his horse was going to need to start fast to keep up with the past two winners. Kenrick did, and was second at the quarter mark and then battling JJ’s Jet for that same spot behind Bet You halfway through the two-lap race on the half-mile track.

“At the five-eighths pole, I thought I had as good a chance to win as any,” Cushing said, “if I got a chance.”

The first opening came when Bet You began to slow with a quarter of a mile ago, allowing W. Drew Campbell to drive JJ’s Jet into the lead with Kenrick behind on the back straight.

“I’d gotten placed behind Bet You, but down the backside JJ’s Jet was the stronger horse,” Cushing said. “So I moved my horse out behind the stronger horse. And when (Bet You) did make a break, I followed JJ right around to the rail.”

JJ’s Jet was primed to pull away on the inside at the final bend, but began to slow in the muddier footing. That allowed Kenrick to pull in front, where he remained for the last eighth of a mile to take the victory.

“Once I was behind Drew, I saw Drew’s horse starting to struggle in the heavy footing in the last turn,” Cushing said. “I felt pretty good going through the last turn that I was going to get to him. … It could have gone either way, but I could feel my horse closing.”

JJ’s Jet had won his previous five starts, but was running for the first time since a July 28 race in Scarborough. Kenrick, however, ran last Sunday, and Cushing said the shorter layoff might have made the difference.

Heath Campbell drives Bet You (2) down the first club house stretch during the Walter Hight race Saturday at the Skowhegan State Fair. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“My horse just raced six days ago, so mine was good and fit,” he said. “I’m sure there’s was too, but that might have given me an advantage.”

Given Kenrick’s race experience and speed — his 1:50.0 time from earlier in the season was the fastest of all horses in the field — and Cushing’s savvy driving, Gibbs was confident in her horse’s chances for a strong showing. Even if she wasn’t ready to bank on it.

“You just never know going into a big race like this, and you always hope for the best,” she said. “(It’s been) around the clock care, and he’s proven himself today, that he can still get it done.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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