Last week featured a three-day program full of stakes races. This week, with a much thinner graded stakes calendar, the Picks & Ponderings duo will tackle only two races this week. Each race is at a different venue, so we're splitting it into two pieces. Nicolle tackles the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland where Paul in this space handicaps the Grade 3 Knickerbocker Stakes from Belmont Park.
With the Breeders' Cup three weeks away, most of the major prep races and steppingstone events have been conducted. This weekend's race, a Grade 3 worth $200,000, doesn't exactly fall into that category. The Knickerbocker Stakes has always been contested at a route of grand, always held in the Autumn. Sometimes in divisions and nearly always on the weeds, its namesake traces to a fictional Washington Irving character and nowadays is an old-fangled way to represent someone from New York City (with this week's host track of Belmont Park located in one of the bordering suburbs). Despite being bounced between Aqueduct and Belmont and contested at a variety of distances, it's always maintained a grade since the 1970s. At nine furlongs for three-year-olds and up on the green it's a "tweener" for those who find a higher profile mile race (like the Shadwell Turf Mile or Breeders' Cup Mile) maybe too short or longer distances like ten or twelve furlongs (such as the Canadian International or the Breeders' Cup Turf) too much. Yet last year's winner ZA APPROVAL took a win photo in this race and skipped out to Southern California to be second in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Time will tell if anyone will follow that path. Along with the aforementioned ZA APPROVAL (2013), additional recent notable winners of this race include Breeders Cup Turf hero Better Talk Now (2003), and two time winner Boisterous (2011, 2012).
Selections for this race on Saturday October 11th are made "turf only".
Belmont Park -- Race 8-- Grade 3 Knickerbocker Stakes -- 1 1/8 miles on turf -- post time 4:27 pm ET.
SPEAKING OF WHICH won't be favored in this event. With 2/1 EASTER GIFT a main track only, he'll scratch should the race stay on turf and the money on EASTER GIFT will fall to favored UP WITH THE BIRDS (who this space thinks is worth beating) or to ZA APPROVAL. That influx of money won't fall on SPEAKING OF WHICH, who emerges for the first time since winning the G2 Monmouth, the local prep to the G1 United Nations. The "other" Christophe Clement runner in here, as he trains both SPEAKING OF WHICH and ZA APPROVAL. Further, ZA APPROVAL's win and two seconds to that Wise Dan fellow will make him popular on the tote. SPEAKING OF WHICH bested a strong field in the Monmouth, beating the likes of Hangover Kid (G2 winner, next out), WINNING CAUSE (won G3 at Monmouth in August), Guys Reward (runner-up next out in a G2), and Finnegans Wake (won a G3 on Arlington Million Preview Day next out). The Monmouth looks like a key race, and it's his turn to strut his stuff. Last year's winner, ZA APPROVAL, returns in this spot and goes second off the layoff. In between collecting two "Second to Wise Dan in a Turf Mile" badges last year he won the Knickerbocker at 7-4 odds. He got in form last fall and although trainer C. Clement thinks he's a fall horse, he got really good last fall. This year has seen his form tail off. Second off the layoff after winning a small overnight stakes at seven panels earlier in the meet. Perhaps the freshening will whisk away the bad form, but he also attracts a negative in Luis Saez, only a 9% rider on weeds this year. Look for PLAINVIEW to be the speed of the speed from the inside box, as this is his gameplan. Winner of an allowance three back at a mile, he was second to ZA APPROVAL last year here. Last out at nine panels he set the pace at Monmouth, losing to WINNING CAUSE, and all three of his tries at today's nine furlongs have resulted in top three finishes.
#4 SPEAKING OF WHICH (4/1)
#3 ZA APPROVAL (7/2)
#1 PLAINVIEW (6/1)
Longshot: Sheldon Russell, who rode for the first time this summer at Arlington, has taken his tack back to the Maryland circuit. He was aboard #6 LEGENDARY (8/1) last time when winning a six-figure stakes at Laurel and is named again to ride in this G3. And Russell plans to forego a day of mounts at Laurel to ride here at Belmont. While the Laurel win was over turf with not a lot of give to it, I like how he won three and four back over today's Belmont inner course at ten panels. Three back was on a yielding course, helpful as he won't mind a fall course that might have some give in it. Still, we endorse LEGEN-wait for it-DARY over good or firm ground, as he's won three of the last four, surrounding the scores with a dead-heat third (with PLAINVIEW) in the Lure on Whitney Day. Russell, when taking mounts for the named trainer, has won twice and hit the podium two more times in six outs.
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