Horse-by-horse analysis for each of the Grade 1 stakes on Belmont Park’s Super Saturday card. Horses are listed in post position order. Each field is followed by a final assessment, top three selections and suggested wagers.
Race 5 – The Beldame (Grade 1, $400,000)
Fillies and mares, 3 years old and older, 1 1/8 miles
Roman Invader – Her class level seemed well-established but then she stepped up and won her first stakes race as a 6-year-old in her 37th career start. Another major forward progression against some of the top fillies and mares in the world seems a lot to ask, especially wheeling back in nine days. David Jacobson, leading trainer at the Belmont spring meet, has a knack for getting the most out of horses but even her best effort is unlikely to be enough in this field.
Princess of Sylmar – The nation’s top sophomore filly could not have been more impressive this year, winning three of the most important Grade 1 events in an especially strong division. She seemed to only get stronger as she matured over the summer and we still don’t know what her best race is, as she was barely challenged in the last two at Saratoga. The ease of those wins also suggests that they didn’t take much out of her, meaning she should be fit to fire once again. With a long straightaway run to start this one-turn, 1 1/8-mile race the post won’t matter, as the field will have plenty of time to spread out. Princess of Sylmar will save ground inside, tip to the outside entering the stretch and show us how good she really is. If the answer is what I think it is, she’ll be the only serious threat to the favorite. Note that even aside from two failed Dubai excursions, Royal Delta has failed to come through at short prices three times in the last couple of years. In two of those cases, the winner (Awesome Maria, Love and Pride) was trained by Todd Pletcher.
And Why Not – It’s hard to imagine a 1-for-15 lifetime filly would win her first race of the year in a Grade 1 against two probable Eclipse Award winners. She finished more than 11 lengths behind Royal Delta in the Delaware Handicap. What she has going for her is a trainer who wouldn’t throw her to the wolves without reason. She shows a good workout at Fair Hill and could be in here hoping to get a Grade 1 placing, which would increase her value as a broodmare prospect. Throw out the last race on a sloppy track she may not have liked and I can see her hitting the board at a price.
Royal Delta – Both trainer Bill Mott and jockey Mike Smith remarked in recent weeks that the two-time Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner could be better than ever this year, a scary proposition for everyone else in this race. Smith even compared her stride to one of the all-time greats, Zenyatta, and said he would love to see some sort of analysis that could determine which one of the two covered more ground per jump. She had an effortlessly fast workout Monday, which came early in the morning when Mott said the track was actually on the slow side. There are really no holes in her game that apply to this race. She’s in top form, won last year’s Beldame by 9 ½ lengths, shows an affinity for Belmont, had a great final breeze, retains her regular Hall of Fame rider, does not appear susceptible to pace pressure and runs Lasix-free because she doesn’t need it. I always look for ways to beat a favorite but the only way I can see that happening here is if headline writers get their wish and Princess of Sylmar proves to be the next Royal Delta.
Centring – One thing you have to love about Darley is that they breed and race to win the biggest races and won’t duck anyone. There are plenty of spots in the condition book that this mare could be favored in, but when you’re by A.P. Indy out of a multiple Grade 1 winner, the expectation is that you will win important Grade 1 events. She’s never been worse than third at Belmont and deserves this chance after hitting the board in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps here in May. All year, Centring has tackled top-class females and has always shown up with solid efforts. She’s another one that’s hard to picture for the win, but if the Royal Delta-Princess of Sylmar exacta is terribly overbet, I could see playing a straight Royal Delta-Centring exacta instead.
Lady Cohiba – This filly has been good for one minor stakes win per year but never any of the graded quality. Two of those three stakes wins came on wet tracks, a scenario unlikely for Saturday. This could be yet another that would send her connections home happy if she could get third in a Grade 1, which is not out of the question in a short field.
Final Assessment: I just can’t find a good reason to bet seriously against Royal Delta so I have to go into the exotics to find value. I’m a big Princess of Sylmar fan, but she’ll be overbet in her first try against older horses. I still rate her as most likely to finish second, but to make money we have to find alternatives that go against conventional wisdom.
The Bet: $10 Exacta, 4-5 (Total = $10)
Royal Delta, above winning the Personal Ensign easily, will be tough in the Beldame. (Photo courtesy NYRA/Adam Coglinese)
Race 7 – The Vosburgh (Grade 1, $400,000)
3-year-olds and older, six furlongs
Forty Tales – Classy sprinter can’t be faulted for not coming through as the favorite in a wild running of the King’s Bishop. He made up a ton of ground from near the back of a 14-horse field – 19 lengths behind at one point – despite going six wide, checking and altering course. The two wins before that are more indicative of his true ability as perhaps the top 3-year-old sprinter. There will be a solid pace in here but the problem is that Grade 1-caliber sprinters don’t usually fade as drastically as lesser horses. For many of these, leading or pressing through a half-mile in 44 seconds and change is the norm, not an indicator that a retreat is inevitable. This one is capable of making some noise, but in blazing fast Grade 1 sprint races I favor more experience.
Justin Phillip – He put forth a monster performance in Saratoga’s Vanderbilt, annually one of the most significant Grade 1 sprints and a race he had missed by a neck in the year prior. Last time out, he ran an even third but with the excuse of having to run on a sloppy track, which some horses simply don’t go for, whether because of the footing or not caring for wads of mud being flung into their faces. He’s come up short in his last two tries at Belmont, but won three times on the track before that, including the Grade 2 Woody Stephens at three. With Asmussen horses, the key workout is the penultimate one, which in this case was a :49 4/5 bullet on Sept. 16, indicating he came out of the Forego in good order. His best race would be tough to beat and that workout suggests to me a top effort is in store on Saturday.
Bahamian Squall – Outrunning 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg at Calder was the first sign this was one of the top sprinters around. He backed it up in the Vanderbilt and since then has been showing off his natural speed in the mornings. I could see being skeptical last time in his first trip outside of Florida but after coming to the final sixteenth of a mile with a chance to win the Vanderbilt he has proven capable of winning a race of this stature.
Strapping Groom – A win in the Forego over the likes of Jackson Bend and Justin Phillip is impressive, but it’s hard to know what it means on a sloppy surface. Has this horse discovered his true potential as a world-class sprinter at age six, or did he get a smart front-running ride on a mess of a wet track? We don’t know the answer to that yet, but for the sake of whittling down the contenders I’m willing to assume the latter.
The Lumber Guy – Finally back at the site of his greatest triumph, the defending Vosburgh winner looks to establish some kind of normalcy. Like a lot of New Yorkers, he loved California when he first got there, but stayed too long and decided he belonged on the East Coast. His comeback effort at Saratoga was a step in the right direction. Monday’s workout, though, is what really tells me he’s back. No sane trainer sends a horse out to work a half-mile in 46 and change. When you see that, the logical conclusion is that the horse did it on his own, without urging. If The Lumber Guy is finally feeling at home he could recapture his late 2012 form at the perfect time.
Palace – Linda Rice sure knows what to do with progeny of City Zip, her breakout star of 2000. Since joining Rice’s barn, this colt has six wins and two seconds from nine starts. He’s not real seasoned against stakes company but this could be his moment. Rice got hot with two winners on Thursday’s card and Palace is at his best now. He’ll get a decent stalking trip toward the outside and has the look of a consistent local campaigner who could prove stubborn even against foes that are better on paper.
Candyman E – While I love to bet horses that I believe have a chance based on back class, I can’t give any weight to what a horse accomplished prior to being away from the races for a full year. If we take this gelding only on his 2013 form, it’s hard to think he’s ready for this. The absence of a published workout since his Sept. 10 bullet also strikes me as suspect. Plenty of horses in racing shape don’t need to work every 7-10 days but when it’s a 6-year-old that had 12 months off and changed barns not that long ago, I can’t anticipate that he’s sitting on a lifetime-best effort.
Private Zone – Doug O’Neill ships this gelding across the continent even though there’s a Grade 1 sprint at Santa Anita next weekend. Why? Because the trainer already has one of the top choices, Goldencents, pointing to that race. Private Zone placed in two of Santa Anita’s premier sprint stakes last winter, including one in which he outfinished Justin Phillip. He had a long break after trying Dubai and you have to assume there will be improvement in the second try off a long layoff.
Final Assessment: In this deep and well-matched field I wouldn’t try to talk a friend like you out of betting any of them. However, a few of the proven Grade 1 types stand out to me with their recent works and I’ll hope to get decent odds on them since they’re not coming into this one off of winning efforts.
The Bet: $1 Trifecta part-wheel, 2,5,8 with 2,3,5,6,8 with 2,3,5,6,8 (Total = $36)
Justin Phillip, above winning the Vanderbilt, is a proven Grade 1 horse. (Photo courtesy NYRA/Adam Coglinese)
Race 8 – The Flower Bowl Invitational (Grade 1, $600,000)
Fillies and mares, 3 years old and older, 1 1/4 miles (turf)
Tannery (coupled entry with Laughing) – This filly tackled 11 of the East Coast’s top turf horses in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer last time out, partly because the Grade 2 Ballston Spa against her own sex one week later was too short of a race for this true distance filly but also because owner Richard Santulli and trainer Alan Goldberg already had the favorite for that race. The connections knew what they were doing, though, as Tannery finished a close fourth in the Sword Dancer at 30-to-1 despite going wide the whole way, and super-wide (seven paths out, according to the chart) into the stretch. There was not a lot of pace in that 1 ½-mile contest so to come from eight lengths back with that trip was a very good effort.
Mystical Star – She runs her race most every time; sometimes it’s good enough and sometimes it’s not, depending on the quality of the field she’s facing. Against this field, which isn’t overwhelming for a Grade 1, it could be good enough. She won a Grade 2 at this distance on this inner turf course last summer and enters this off a win over the undulating European-style Kentucky Downs course. I love betting horses that have repeatedly run well against similar company without a win but only need to improve a few lengths to get the 60% money; they tend to be overlooked despite their competitiveness.
Somali Lemonade – This one earned more than $135,000 as a 3-year-old without a win in eight starts. She ran competitively at a high level, though, and kept plugging away until she got a graded stakes win at Parx in July. Despite some strong efforts last year, her inability pass anyone in the Ballston Spa last time doesn’t foretell a major Grade 1 win today.
Valiant Girl – There might not be another trainer alive that I’m more willing to just bet blindly on than Graham Motion, yet this filly appears to be in over her head. You could make a case that 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles were too short for her, but even at a preferred distance, this spot is asking a lot. Too many others in here show more class and seasoning.
Kissable – You have to forgive the last effort since being bumped three times and checking badly is simply too much to overcome. Before that, though, it was already established that she would rather run on turf with some give in it. Barring unexpected rain this week she appears overmatched despite, like Valiant Girl, connections that I always look for reasons to back.
Quschi – The top chance of Motion’s pair hasn’t missed the board since coming to America last winter. Could have been riding a two-race win streak if not for running into Treasured Up, who is in good form right now and narrowly prevailed that day. The Waya win looked pretty easy, suggesting a step up to this level might be within reach.
Laughing (coupled entry with Tannery) – This gutsy mare has dug in to hold off late challenges in both of her recent wins. There isn’t a logical candidate to press her on the lead, even though the rest of the field might be conceding victory if nobody tries. She’s lightly raced this year – undefeated in three starts – which tells me she could easily replicate the same effort again Saturday. You could hope she’s one of those horses that thrives at Saratoga, but that’s too much of a stretch to put money behind. Dansili was best at one mile but has sired so many winners at longer distances that it is hardly a concern. With the favorable pace scenario she’s likely to get this is Laughing’s race to lose.
White Rose – Last race is irrelevant, as it came off the turf and was run on a sealed, muddy main track. Going just by turf form, we are looking at a good 3-year-old with an entry-level allowance win versus older females. This is a solid filly but she doesn’t seem ready for these.
Final Assessment: Laughing has already proven tough to pass and there is little speed amongst the opposition to wear her down early. Entrymate Tannery wouldn’t be a surprise, either, so the two of them together make a formidable team. Mystical Star, however, is the key to making money here, as she has the ability to win a race like this if the Santulli-owned pair doesn’t bounce back from big Saratoga efforts.
The Bet: $20 Win-Place, 2 (Total = $40)
Mystical Star has been successful on the inner turf course at Belmont. (Photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglinese)
The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (Grade 1, $600,000)
3-year-olds and older, 1 ½ miles (turf)
Nutello – Put forth a big effort in his American debut at Saratoga despite difficulty relaxing early and steadying at the quarter-pole. As a 3-year-old, he placed in the French Derby at Chantilly, demonstrating real class. A small sample of European imports have done well in our Grade 1 turf races this year when they get Lasix for the first time (Garden City winner Alterite and Beverly D. heroine Dank are two that come to mind), as this one will Saturday.
Imagining (coupled entry with Boisterous) – By Giant’s Causeway out of a three-time graded stakes winner, Imagining was bred for the big stage. He seems to prefer longer distances, cruising along at a good clip and allowing his stamina to carry him to victory. His first stakes win last time out was impressive for its 5-plus-length margin, which is huge in any turf stakes at Saratoga, and it came over a good Grade 1-placed horse in Atigun. He got blinkers for the first time that day, a logical equipment change since he seems to lose interest if not in the mix early on. He has a lot going his way and could offer some value, assuming his Belmont-loving entrymate Boisterous scratches as expected.
Big Blue Kitten (part of a 3-horse entry with Real Solution and Joes Blazing Aaron) – The Ramsey-owned Kitten’s Joy horses are dominating Grade 1 turf stakes this year and this one’s leading the charge, with back to back wins in the United Nations and Sword Dancer. He’s managed to maintain his form, is 2-for-2 over the Widener course, and is proven at the distance. I can give you no good reason to bet against this entry except that it won’t be as much fun as trying to bet against it. It’s unlikely that every favorite will win against such stiff competition today and when one of them falters – whether it’s the Ramsey entry, Royal Delta or Laughing – we need to be in a position to profit.
Slumber – The Saratoga comebacker off of a one-year layoff was jaw-dropping. It wouldn’t be like Mott to push a horse in his first race back, so improvement from that effort strikes me as not just possible but probable. If he weren’t still up to racing at a high level Juddmonte wouldn’t have him at Belmont with Bill Mott, one of the great turf trainers. Sometimes you have to trust in the top horsemen and assume that they know their horses. Sire Cacique earned his two greatest victories – the 2006 Manhattan and Man o’ War – on the Belmont turf. A horse with an identical history for other connections might not make the top of my list but on this day, for these sharp folks, Slumber is the sleeping giant.
Real Solution (part of a 3-horse entry with Big Blue Kitten and Joes Blazing Aaron) – The deserving winner of the Arlington Million, our country’s most prestigious turf event outside of the Breeders’ Cup, is an obvious choice here. There could be others better suited for 1 ½ miles, though, and I’ll reiterate that betting a 3-horse Ramsey entry is not the proper path to riches.
Twilight Eclipse – Don’t assume that a horse with success at 1 ¼ miles – just because that’s a long distance by American standards – can compete at 1 ½ miles. The quarter-mile that separates a legit distance runner at 1 ¼ miles and a “middle-distance” horse at one mile is the same two furlongs that can seem like an eternity to a weary turf horse stretching out to 1 ½ miles for the first time. Twilight Eclipse, fortunately, is already on the record as liking the Turf Classic distance.
Boisterous (coupled entry with Imagining) – UPDATE: REPORTED LIKELY TO SCRATCH. He clearly loves Belmont, with six wins on this turf course, four in graded stakes. Last time out, he saved ground on the hedge the whole way but couldn’t keep up with Hyper when the real running started. The chart says he checked near the quarter-pole but I didn’t really see it that way, at least not from the pan shot. He lacked room, certainly, but even once he found a path in the stretch there wasn’t any acceleration. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him rebound and win on his favorite course, but I’m not sure his disappointing third last time was entirely on account of the trip.
Joes Blazing Aaron (part of a 3-horse entry with Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten) – Owner Ken Ramsey openly admits to the obvious – this horse is a rabbit. His other two entrants are closers and this recent claim is here for one reason only, which is to make sure Little Mike and King Kreesa get some early pressure so the pace is solid. It helps the chances of his two serious contenders and it’s perfectly legal.
King Kreesa – He finished within two lengths of 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan last time out and scored a graded stakes win at Belmont before that. Problem is, those were on the lead going one mile. This race is a half-mile longer than his best distance and we know the rabbit Joes Blazing Aaron will be humming along out there, either in front of this one or right next to him. King Kreesa has never won a race when he wasn’t setting the pace at the first point of call.
Little Mike – Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf winner hasn’t won since that big score in November. However, he spent the first part of his year in Dubai, a demanding trip that often requires months of recovery before a horse regains his top form. Will the old Little Mike show up Saturday now that he’s had some time to get his legs back under him? It’s possible. The presence of the rabbit and King Kreesa might not even bother him, as he’s rated successfully in the past, most notably in the Breeders’ Cup win. The last two starts were certainly respectable, finishing within four lengths in two Grade 1 events. I could go either way with this horse and will let the price guide me. If the public likes him, then I don’t; if the public dismisses him, then I’ll use him.
Final Assessment: Joes Blazing Aaron will set the early pace, with King Kreesa overextending himself to keep up. Little Mike and Imagining will sit comfortably behind those two, with the others biding their time farther back. Nobody ever tries to do much in these races until the final three-eighths of a mile. Imagining and Little Mike will lead them into the stretch but the closers will have every chance. Slumber will gallop past them at the eighth pole and hold off late rallies from Big Blue Kitten, Real Solution and Twilight Eclipse.
The Bet: $5 Exacta box, 2-4-5 (Total = $30)
The Jockey Club Gold Cup (Grade 1, $1 million)
3-year-olds and older, 1 ¼ miles
Ron the Greek – He hasn’t been himself the second half of the year. We had Bill Mott as a guest on our weekly NTRA National Media Teleconference recently and he just didn’t sound too enthused about this horse’s chances of making a return trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This is the right spot for a horse as accomplished as Ron the Greek, but it’s been more than a year since he beat open company so it’s understandable to wonder if his best days are behind him. But wait, another way to look at it is this guy finished a half-length behind Game On Dude, the best dirt horse in the world, just five months ago in one of the richest races in America. And even though he’s been no better than third since then, the horses he’s finishing behind are some of the best out there. My conclusion is that he can still be competitive at this level, but he’s not in top form right now and whoever wins this race will have to show up with their absolute best effort.
Orb – The Kentucky Derby winner is still the front-runner for champion 3-year-old male based on what he accomplished the first half of the year. This race, however, is against older horses in September. It seems reasonable to think Orb could improve off his Travers effort, making his second start following a break. But trainer Shug McGaughey swore up and down coming into the Travers that they wanted to win that race and were primed to do so. I’m not sure there’s more improvement left to discover in a horse that’s run in five Grade 1 races at 1 1/8 miles or longer in the past six months. He was masterfully campaigned to win the Kentucky Derby, but sustaining that form beyond the rigors of the Triple Crown, or even recapturing it later in the same year, is rare. Only three horses in the last 30 years appeared in all three Triple Crown events and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at three. Those were Easy Goer (Hall of Fame), Skip Away (Hall of Fame) and Curlin (1-to-9 for the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible next year). Easy Goer’s trainer, of course, is the same guy who will saddle Orb on Saturday. We know it can be done but it’s a tall task, and if he manages it history tells us we can start getting that bronze plaque ready.
Last Gunfighter – He couldn’t break his maiden at Fair Grounds as a 3-year-old but once he joined Chad Brown’s barn everything changed and he flew up the ladder, from maiden special weight to multiple graded stakes winner in eight months without a loss. In the last 12 months he’s only tasted defeat once, at the hands of Flat Out. His ascension to this level was head-spinning, and with what he’s done so far who’s to say that further improvement isn’t possible. My suspicion, though, is that he’s reached a plateau and another step up to win a $1 million, Grade 1 race would be stunning.
Vitoria Olimpica – Earlier this week the Brazilian Group 1 winner was entered in a minor overnight stakes race that didn’t attract enough entries to go. According to Pletcher, the owner felt like the horse was doing well enough to deserve a shot in here. He was impressive at Saratoga in his first start on dirt. For a major Grade 1 such as this, though, I want to back a horse that has been pointing to the race for weeks, if not months. A last-minute audible to take a flyer because there’s no other spot to run in isn’t the profile of a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner.
Alpha – Won the Woodward as the longest shot in the field, but did so with a great ride that took advantage of the track conditions. In two starts before that, on fast surfaces, several of the same horses that he’ll face Saturday beat him decidedly. The most popular speed figures tend to be inflated on sloppy tracks so that career-best number last time is unlikely to be replicated in this race.
Flat Out – The two-time defending Jockey Club Gold cup winner goes for an incredible third in a row. Mott has pointed out that this is a horse who happens to come to hand this time of year. There isn’t much to take issue with in his past performances. There’s no indication that he’s lost a step at seven and it’s well-known that he runs his best races at Belmont. Despite his proven track record he could be the third choice in here behind Cross Traffic and Palace Malice.
Palace Malice – Orb was the 3-year-old of the first half of the year, while Belmont winner Palace Malice is the sophomore of the summer. It’s not a stretch to think that he wins the Travers with a better trip. Pletcher has observed how this horse only seems to get stronger and more mature as the year goes on, not unlike his sire Curlin (a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner at three). His win with a clean trip in the Jim Dandy was flattered not only by what the beaten horses in there did in the Travers but also what they did last weekend, finishing one-two in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Of the two 3-year-olds, this is the one that is clearly on top of his game and poised to win this. If he did it would also make him the new favorite for an Eclipse Award.
Cross Traffic – He’s a head and a nose away from being undefeated in five starts. His Met Mile performance was shockingly awesome because of his lack of experience. Now he’s battle-tested and the Whitney showed him to be a man of a horse. The odd configuration for the 1 ¼-mile start on a 1 ½-mile oval isn’t ideal for a speedster who will try to get the lead from the outside, but at least he’ll be in the clear from the beginning. With no other confirmed speed in here he could have an easier go of it in the earlier stages than he’s used to. His workmate in the mornings has been another talented son of Unbridled’s Song, the Donn Handicap and New Orleans Handicap winner Graydar, who runs earlier on the card in the Kelso, so if that one wins big it should give Cross Traffic backers even more confidence. The 1 ¼-mile distance is a legitimate concern, as the talented dam Stop Traffic had her best success sprinting.
Final Assessment: The Jockey Club Gold Cup is a race for legends. When you go through the list of past winners you see relatively few that would qualify as flukes or upsets. Cross Traffic will get an advantageous pace scenario, but that might not be enough for him to go 1 ¼ miles against some of the best in training. Flat Out could get his third straight just by running a race as good as he normally does at Belmont. His main threat is Palace Malice, who we have reason to believe is getting stronger and has the perfect style for this race, or most any race.
The Bet: $10 Exacta box, 6-7; $10 Exacta part-wheel, 6,7 with 1 (Total = $40)
Flat Out, above winning the Suburban Handicap in July, has won the last two editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and is 5-for-6 at Belmont Park (Photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese)