2017 Belmont Gold Cup Preview and Friday Stakes Selections

Over the last few years, Belmont Stakes weekend has established itself as American racing's midyear showcase.  With top-class stakes races across all ages and divisions, the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival demands the attention of the racing world whether or not there is a Triple Crown at stake.

Picks and Ponderings will tackle both Friday and Saturday at Belmont this week.  In addition to fully previewing the Belmont Gold Cup here, Nicolle Neulist also provides selections and longshots for each of Friday's five stakes races at Belmont Park.  A separate piece features Nicolle Neulist and Paul Mazur going point-counterpoint about each horse in the Belmont Stakes field, as well as Nicolle Neulist's stakes selections for Saturday at Belmont.

We also keep our eyes on the local circuit, with a preview of Saturday's stakes race at Arlington: the Isaac Murphy Handicap for Illinois-bred filly and mare sprinters.

NBC Sports Network will broadcast racing at Belmont from 5:00-6:00pm EDT on Friday.  In addition, live streaming is available on the NYRA website and the NYRA Now mobile app.

Morning lines were unavailable at original publish time.  Updated Wednesday, June 7 to add morning lines.

Friday, June 9: Belmont Park

Race 10: Belmont Gold Cup (G3), four-year-olds and up, two miles on the turf, post time 5:46pm EDT

Until a few years ago, true stayers' races on the grass had fallen off the upper echelon of the American racing schedule.  The 1 11/16 mile American St. Leger, now a Grade 3, first graced the Arlington calendar in 2012.  Two years later, the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup was inaugurated; the next year, Gulfstream followed suit with another two-miler, the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes.  The name "Gold Cup" has long been associated with a two-mile race: one of the world's premier staying races, the Gold Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot.  The Belmont Gold Cup has a grade for the first time this year, and offers a $400,000 purse, the highest in its short history.

In return, the race was rewarded with its deepest field to date.  The race drew a field of 13, including six international entries.  Yes, American horses have won the first three editions of the Belmont Gold Cup.  But, the graded status of the race drew better overseas shippers than ever before, and the race goes through several of them.

WALL OF FIRE looks like an up-and-comer; in a competitive race, he has enough upside to take here at a bit of a price.  WALL OF FIRE has only tried two miles once.  Yes, he finished sixth beaten nine lengths.  But?  He was first off a six and a half month lay, and he was facing a far tougher field than he sees here.  That race, the Dubai Gold Cup (G2), featured world-class stayers like Vazirabad, Sheikhzayedroad, and Big Orange.  The fact that his connections would try WALL OF FIRE there suggests they think highly of him as a stayer, and this race is a more realistic ask.  It's a positive to see him going first-time Lasix, and even more of a positive to see who gets the leg up.  Florent Geroux has become an eminent big-race rider, and he already has a win under his belt at two miles over Belmont's grass -- last year with Da Big Hoss.  Though that one is still in the witness protection program, Geroux should have plenty of horse under him in the late stages again this year with WALL OF FIRE.

Trainer Willie Mullins sends a pair out here.  CLONDAW WARRIOR has shipped stateside before; he finished second behind Da Big Hoss in the American St. Leger (G3) at Arlington Park.  However, that ten-year-old hasn't seen the winners' circle in almost two years.  This space prefers his stablemate WICKLOW BRAVE.  WICKLOW BRAVE makes his first appearance since a tilt in the Melbourne Cup (G1) last November.  He finished well beaten there, but holds his own in group company in Great Britain and Ireland -- plenty of class to be a factor here.  The distance should also suit.  Two back at the Curragh, WICKLOW BRAVE won the 1 3/4 mile Irish St. Leger (G1) over some heavy hitters: second-place Order of St. George won the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 2016, and third-place Trip to Paris won the same race the year before.  WICKLOW BRAVE has held his own going two miles or even slightly longer, so stamina will not be a question.  He has some tactical versatility, able to run well from on the pace or off it.  And, his jockey has also won a two-miler: Javier Castellano piloted Unitarian home in the 2015 H. Allen Jerkens at Gulfstream.

ST MICHEL has a bit of class to prove here, as he has done most of his work in the conditions and handicap ranks.  He also has to prove he can ship, as this will be his first tilt outside Great Britain.  However, ST MICHEL's one foray into group company was a solid one: he was third in the 2 1/4 mile Doncaster Cup (G2) last year, behind a pair of classy stayers in Sheikhzayedroad and Quest For More.  He is well proven at the distance: though all came in handicap company, he has won all three of his tries going two miles.  The Gold Cup has him second off the layoff, returning to his best surface and distance after a 1 3/4 mile prep over the Chelmsford City all-weather on May 10.  He finished second there, in his first race since October, and should be sharper here.  Aside from his form, a few other factors point to ST MICHEL being live.  For one, he gets a strong New York rider in the irons: Irad Ortiz, who rode Innovation Economy to victory in this race in 2015.  Furthermore, he goes first-time Lasix.  Between the shipping and the class question, ST MICHEL is not one you can take a short price on.  But, he should be that in this deep field, and his upside abounds.

Selections:

#4 WALL OF FIRE (8/1)

#12 WICKLOW BRAVE (5/1)

#13 ST MICHEL (4/1)

Longshot:  Two of the stateside runners interest a bit.  TAGHLEEB, the winner of the H. Allen Jerkens on December 31, has proven two-mile stamina and he's a closer who always fires.  In the absence of his stablemate Da Big Hoss, TAGHLEEB is the class of the American stayers' division, but he also stands to take a bit more betting action than he should based on that fact.  #1 HUNTER O'RILEY (15/1), on the other hand, should be a bigger price, and brings a lot to like.  He has tried two miles before, finishing a late-closing third behind TAGHLEEB in the H. Allen Jerkens.  His late gas there was a positive sign.  HUNTER O'RILEY comes int this start second off a break, off an allowance win at Keeneland, with every right to improve with training and distance.  He also gets a swap to top big-race jockey Mike Smith.  Would winning this race be a tough ask for HUNTER O'RILEY?  Sure.  But, at long odds, the James Toner trainee could spice up the exotics.

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Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Friday's stakes races at Belmont Park. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!

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