The feature on the Saturday June 7 card at Belmont Park may be the Belmont Stakes, but the undercard deserves a hard look as well.
Belmont Park shifted its stake calendar about, and turned Belmont Stakes Day into a summertime Baby Breeders' Cup. Most every division gets a representation with a traditional New York stakes race filling the undercard. Traditional Belmont Stakes Day features like the Manhattan and the Just A Game are joined by the Ogden Phipps and the Metropolitan, creating ten stakes races in a row that are capped off with the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.
The NBC family of networks will provide television coverage of Belmont Stakes Day. NBC Sports will televise the undercard starting from 2:30 pm ET to 4:30 pm ET. NBC takes over at 4:30 pm ET and their program goes until 7:00 pm ET. All five of the supporting races in this piece are on major network TV. (We at "Picks & Ponderings" hope NBC is on their best behavior this time, and does not preempt live races.)
This piece only covers the undercard G1s. The early half of the card was picked and pondered, too. For a in-depth look at the Belmont Stakes, consult our joint handicapping piece where both Nicolle and I go one-by-one through the field. And though this is a place about Chicago-centric racing, "Picks and Ponderings" hasn't forgotten about the Purple Violet on Saturday.
Updated on June 6 to reflect the scratch of Central Banker in the Met Mile and to add a link to the early stakes.
Belmont Park -- Race 6 -- G1 Acorn Stakes -- One mile (one turn) on dirt -- post time 2:34 pm ET, to air on NBC Sports
In the absence of Kentucky Oaks winner Untappable, a baker's dozen of (strictly) three-year-old fillies will try for three-quarters of a million. UNBRIDLED FOREVER has not gotten a win photo since January in the Silverbulletday Stakes, a feeder to the G2 Fair Grounds Oaks at the New Orleans oval, but that's where Untappable was also planted for her winter-spring campaign. Naturally, UNBRIDLED FOREVER found herself getting beaten by Untappable in the aforementioned titular Oaks at Fair Grounds, third behind her and fellow entrant FIFTYSHADESOFGOLD. She tried the Kentucky Oaks and turned another credible third, chasing another fellow entrant in MY MISS SOPHIA. With a gaggle of front runners, UNBRIDLED FOREVER should get something to attack and pick up the pieces down the lane. We'll tab UNBRIDLED FOREVER to mow them all down, taking a stand against MY MISS SOPHIA, quoted the 8/5 morning line favorite. She chased Untappable (who hasn't?) in the Kentucky Oaks and led every step of the way two back in Queens. This one will get buzz for a very solid win at a one-turn mile three back at Gulfstream, but the Gulfstream oval likes to reward forwardly placed runners (like her), and she's not going to have a free lunch on the front end. Still, she's been a solid filly this Spring and does deserve inclusion. SWEET REASON took the winter off after a troubled fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and goes third off the winter slumber in today's Grade One. Started the sophomore campaign against allowance foes on the Aqueduct Inner Track, and won at odds on. She was third in the Gazelle behind MY MISS SOPHIA. The chartcaller's quick comments on this aren't too flatering, "floated into lane" and "mildly". But she has shown an affinity for being off the pace which few have in this field, and third off the layoff may lead to her to replicate what she's shown at two but yet to show at three.
#7 UNBRIDLED FOREVER (10/1)
#8 MY MISS SOPHIA (8/5)
#5 SWEET REASON (10/1)
Longshot: Guess the writer above is still swearing off MY MISS SOPHIA after she burned him in the Racing Dudes contest. Two back in a one-turn mile at Aqueduct, #10 LADY PARADIME (30/1) rated off an average-to-slow pace to clear the first level allowance condition with Rajiv Maragh in the saddle. Last out, down at Pimlico, this one was prompting the pace three wide, but that was at two turns. Still, a one-turn race with this much speed and forward placed runners is going to ask some runners to rate (or make the front fractions wickedly hot), and the fact this one can be tactical is a plus. The thinking here is that the pace will be a front-end cookout, so taking someone who can go off-the-pace is the plan. Getting reunited with Maragh may also be a positive clue.
Belmont Park -- Race 7 -- G1 Odgen Phipps -- 1 1/16 miles (one turn) on dirt -- post time 3:14 pm ET, to air on NBC Sports
The highly anticipated CLOSE HATCHES-BEHOLDER-PRINCESS OF SYLMAR three way battle royale comes to fruition with a million on the line. However, beyond these three in the past performances are three horses who appear hopeless. As a gambling race, you can box these three in the exacta/trifecta, collect your paltry payout, and be on your way. Or you can sit out. Or get precise. Getting precise means honing in one, and we'll hone in on BEHOLDER. BEHOLDER does have a knack of finding races on her own circuit that are filled with cream puffs that flatter her form. And the track was in her favor when she beat CLOSE HATCHES and PRINCESS OF SYLMAR in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last November. Still, she's going second off the layoff and a one-turn mile where she can out gun the speed (if they all choke back) or rate off it (like she showed in glimmers last out) make her the play. She's shown up every time and that's hard to fault. PRINCESS OF SYLMAR, if all the speed materializes, should get an ideal scenario for her style. Like BEHOLDER she too is second off the layoff and beat a field of cardboard cutouts in the 2014 debut. Like BEHOLDER she had a very solid sophomore campaign. The rub is that BEHOLDER can be closer and more tactical, whereas PRINCESS may need more things to fall her way. CLOSE HATCHES may be the third wheel of this group, but she's had a solid campaign so far in annexing the prestigious G1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn and its local prep. Second in the BC Distaff last fall behind BEHOLDER and ahead of PRINCESS OF SYLMAR. Won last summer's G1 Mother Goose, though against sophomores, at today's distance and on the same Belmont oval. The Rosario/Mott team have four wins and seven money finishes in the last ten starts they've gotten together.
#5 BEHOLDER (7/5)
#6 PRINCESS OF SYLMAR (9/5)
#1 CLOSE HATCHES (5/2)
Longshot: Give me your tired, your poor, your hopeless in this spot. While 99.9% of the world picks the obvious three, let's go with someone who isn't and whose odds will be somewhere in the zillion-to-one range. Training our longshot is someone who has been upsetting applecarts since forever: H. Allen Jerkens. Call him Giant Killer, get a scoff. Call him Chief, get a better look. Call his horse #4 CLASSIC POINT (20/1) out as one that could do well if one of the Captain Obvious three goes clunk. She stretches out to a mile and a sixteenth in this spot, which probably puts her near the lead, but she was able to pull back a touch (think BEHOLDER last time out) going seven panels in an N2X allowance. If the riders all strangle their mounts and over-think, she projects as speed of the speed with Alex Solis leading them on a merry chase.
Belmont Park -- Race 8 -- G1 Just a Game -- One mile on Widener Turf -- post time 4:00 pm ET, to air on NBC Sports
Thursday rains will likely put some cut into the ground at Belmont, with the course being less than firm. That makes STEPHANIE'S KITTEN the play in this spot, as her best races have come on ground that is not firm. She won last year's rendition of this event on yielding ground and nosed out a win in a G2 prior to that, but was beaten soundly in the Jenny Wiley on firm ground. Perhaps the first start of the year was needed, but perhaps the firmness of the ground squelched her late kick. While she's a more than competent turfer on firm ground (see: a third place finish in last year's G1 Diana), the course condition (thinking "good" and not firm) will play into her favor. The race projects as a two-speed number, the two genuine speeds being DISCREET MARQ and SOMALI LEMONADE. Both deserve hard looks and inclusion in your tickets, but the slight edge goes to DISCREET MARQ off credible runner-up showings in the Matriach and Wiley. Five for five in the money over this course, with three wins and comes out of the same Wiley that our top selection is exiting. DISCREET MARQ also hails from the Christophe Clement barn, one to always look at for daisycutters. Move this one up should the ground become more firm or if the next horse discussed defects. SOMALI LEMONADE caught a good course last out in the G3 Gallorette and dictated all the terms to win on the Preakness undercard. The water gets deeper here as she's taking Grade 1 veterans. However, she's in solid form after winning the race in Baltimore and a Keeneland allowance, while also answering the question of duplicating solid efforts.
#6 STEPHANIE'S KITTEN (4/1)
#9 DISCREET MARQ (5/2)
#4 SOMALI LEMONADE (8/1)
Longshot: #3 DAME MARIE (20/1) would appreciate if both of the one-way speeds get busy on the front end and duel for her best effort. Still, she showed in races like the Modesty, Kentucky Ladies Turf, Churchill Distaff Turf Mile that she can bring a kick whether there is a singular pace (Modesty) or no pace (KY Downs race). Even if one of the two speeds gets loose, DAME MARIE could bring her closing kick, and that kick was good enough to get into the exacta last time against fellow entrant COFFEE CLIQUE in the G2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile. Rider Jose Ortiz has quietly been riding well this past week, and DAME MARIE's form is muddled by the disposable race at eleven furlongs and three turns at Gulfstream.
Belmont Park -- Race 9 -- G1 Metropolitan Handicap ("Met Mile") -- One mile (one turn) on dirt -- post time 4:48 pm ET, to air on NBC.
Usually, yours truly sees a Tapit in a dirt race and goes on some negative hate-filled diatribe of saying how Tapits are ill-equipped for it. But that's because those are distance races beyond nine furlongs. In an eight-furlong race, that's a whole different ball of wax. And we're playing a Tapit in this spot, namely NORMANDY INVASION to win the now $1.25M Met Mile. Think nine furlongs last out in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap was a bit too far for this runner, and was also one turn too many. Cycle back to his sparkling win two back going today's one turn mile at Gulfstream. Yes, he beat a first-level allowance field. But he showed an ability at two turns (last year in the Wood) and at one turn (that first level allowance) to sit and stalk. With one-way speed like MORENO and GOLDENCENTS signed up in this bulky field, (the appropriately named for a day after D-Day) NORMANDY INVASION can sit off the pace, and one turn is where his future is. The future is now. While there are dyed in the wool speedballs, the propensity for a lot of these runners is to be near the front end. Perhaps a closer, maybe?
CENTRAL BANKER won at seven panels last time in the G2 Churchill Downs Stakes coming off the quick fractions set that afternoon, getting a solid figure and beating a fellow entrant and G2 winner on the line. He's never been farther than seven furlongs, so perhaps more distance puts him closer, yet let's hope he is not too close, as per what happened in the G1 Carter two back when he was close to the front end and then threw out the parachute in mid-race. Certainly capable at seven furlongs and must answer the distance question going eight, but he's in ripe form for it. The scratch of CENTRAL BANKER has me looking to another seven furlong specialist, SHAKIN IT UP, who won around three turns three back in the G2 Strub and was in a photo with our scratched pick. A G1 winner by virtue of the Malibu, the feeling is he could be outside speed, but I think if he is turned off the pace like he was in the Malibu or the San Carlos, that's his meal ticket to a win. Quality but popular humans involved. Even though the calendar position is different, the G3 Westchester still functions as the Met Mile's local prep. The winner that afternoon was PALACE MALICE, who won at 1-20 odds with ease in that race, defeating a fellow entrant and two others by open lengths. The water gets a lot deeper in this event, as beyond NORMANDY INVASION (who we like here) and GOLDEN TICKET (who finds ways to not win), an argument could be made he's been beating up on the B-team all year but faces A-team runners. More distressing is that trainer Pletcher has trained him to show speed, to stalk and press. If the natural Curlin tendency of grinding out even splits and hoping for a pace meltdown works out, he can win but he's been trained to not do that and that's why the favorite is a defensive use at best. But that's an if that does not make him a slam dunk.
#9 NORMANDY INVASION (5/1)
#13 SHAKIN IT UP (6/1)
#1 PALACE MALICE (8/5)
Longshot: Just like in the Acorn earlier on the card, it's entirely possible there is a cookout on the lead with quick splits and fried front runners. #7 CAPO BASTONE (30/1) is the purest of the closers, and he demonstrated that blowing up the toteboard last summer in the Kings' Bishop. Unlike the untested at a mile CENTRAL BANKER, he showed he can close at a mile and he showed it in the Derby Trial at a one-turn mile last Spring. The turf sprint on Breeders' Cup Day can be discarded as we are on dirt. Same goes for the G1 Cigar Mile as the break did him in that afternoon. He was well beaten by CENTRAL BANKER last out in the G2 Churchill Downs, but he still made up some ground. It's also that ever-popular uncoupled trainer entry, as Todd Pletcher saddles CAPO BASTONE along with morning line favorite PALACE MALICE.
Belmont Park -- Race 10 -- G1 Manhattan Stakes -- 1 1/4 miles on Inner Turf -- post time 5:45 pm ET, to air on NBC.
A million dollars is the purse in this turf event. First time lasix on a second time European means something, even though it's someone is Grade One placed and isn't new to shipping across an ocean. However, GRANDEUR was third in the Man o' War last out behind IMAGINING and REAL SOLUTION, and gets plus points for being in the same zip code as quality Euros last year like Cirrus des Aigles and Mukhadram. After being third in the Man o' War that saw its winner on a merry chase, GRANDEUR gets first time lasix, and perhaps second time here will help him out. Perhaps his third here was like his clunker in the G1 Arlington Million last year, where the shipping and acclimation did him in. Two local works over the Belmont turf course show he hasn't jet-setted back to Europe. It's a tough race with a lot of options, but GRANDEUR is the choice here. IMAGINING won the G1 Man o' War last out, and did in fact lead the field for all eleven furlongs last out. The front end may be more crowded this time around, but he did show closing kick at three turns last fall in the G2 Red Smith. Hard to fault a runner that has five wins over the Belmont turf in eight outs, but it's hard to expect he's going to get the same easy pace scenario this time around. Four money finishes at today's ten furlong distance also make him a deserving favorite. Even though the Rosario/Mott jockey trainer team are flammable in the recent past (see what was said above for Close Hatches in the G1 Phipps), SEEK AGAIN gets plus points for being in the same zipcode as crack miler and two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. It's very probable he will, like in the Turf Classic, get an honest pace to close into. But his win in the G1 Hollywood Derby was against middling three-year-olds, even though he beat that year's G1 Secretariat winner. SEEK AGAIN was the classic middling Euro that came over here and found new opportunities in grass races in the states. Being with Mott certainly made, and makes it happen. But with Wise Dan recovering from surgery and out for the summer, is it possible Wise Dan was less than one hundred percent? Expounding on it shows he may not have hit the incumbent Horse of the Year at his best, devaluing that race just a touch along with the so-so Hollywood Derby.
#4 GRANDEUR (5/1)
#1 IMAGINING (7/2)
#6 SEEK AGAIN (3/1)
Longshot: While Mr. Foam Hat goes on babbling about a weak Hollywood Derby and a way to twinge at Wise Dan, this portion of the piece will take a swing with #7 FIVE IRON (15/1). He projects to be the speed of the speed in this spot, whether it was absurdly slow splits in the bog of the Hawthorne Derby or more reasonable clock times last out in the G3 Fort Marcy. Yes, he is attempting to wire a field again (which is why IMAGINING is not endorsed), and maybe the riders have gotten wise. However, he's got five times the propensity for the front and five times the quoted morning line odds.
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