Though the top racing story leading into the weekend is Justify's bid for a Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival ensures that it is not the only one worth following. With top-class stakes races across all ages and divisions, the weekend has established itself as American racing's top midyear showcase, and the action begins this Thursday.
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 all three stakes at Belmont Park on Thursday, and all five on Friday. A separate piece takes a horse-by-horse look at the Belmont field, and also provides stakes selections for Saturday at Belmont.
We also keep our eyes on the local circuit, with a preview of Saturday's pair of Illinois-bred stakes races at Arlington, the Black Tie Affair Handicap and the Mike Spellman Memorial Handicap.
Morning lines were unavailable at original publish time.
Friday, June 8: Belmont Park
Race 10: Belmont Gold Cup (G2), 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, though dearly departed as of this year's Arlington International Festival of racing, 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 is no different. After American-based Charming Kitten, Innovation Economy, and Da Big Hoss took top honours in the first three years of the race, it got a grade for the first time last year. International stayers followed the grade and the increased purse, and Red Cardinal led home a class field. In return, the race was upgraded to a Grade 2 for this year's fifth running, and it keeps its $400,000 purse from last year.
Five-year-old FUNNY KID has grown into himself as a stayer over the last six months, and broke through at the group level last out with a G3 win at Longchamp on April 29. He has blossomed at the two-mile distance category. His form also suggests he will be able to handle the better American ground, with recent form over good turf as well as fast all-weather surfaces at Lingfield and Wolverhampton. Regular rider Maxime Guyon ships across the Atlantic to ride this improving son of Lemon Drop Kid, and FUNNY KID's consistent form and proven stamina have every right to carry the day.
NESSY is another five-year-old now finding his best. Though he had a spate of second-itis in graded stakes company, he put it together well in the San Juan Capistrano (G3) at Santa Anita. That was the longest trip the son of Flower Alley had tried to date, and he thrived. This field is tougher, of course, but he is headed in the right direction. This is also NESSY's first try at two miles, but between how well he handled the step up to a mile and three quarters and the fact that his full brother Bullards Alley handled two miles so well in the H. Allen Jerkens earlier this year, there are reasons to think he'll handle this step up in trip.
The Queen's horse CALL TO MIND is quite young for a stayer, just four. But, despite his youth, he has held his own in group company this year against the four-and-up set in England. Though he has yet to try two miles, his form has been so good as he has stretched out to fourteen and fifteen furlongs that he has a right to handle sixteen. He was G2-placed in France going a mile and seven eighths last year, and though that came over soft turf, he has enough form over good ground to suggest he can handle the firmer American going. Finally, he gets a strong local rider: Javier Castellano is one of the country's best turf riders, and though he has not yet won a Belmont Gold Cup, he has won the two-mile H. Allen Jerkens at Gulfstream.
#4 FUNNY KID (5/1)
#6 NESSY (5/2)
#1 CALL TO MIND (7/2)
Longshot: #10 ROCKETRY (8/1) has class to prove, since he has only dabbled in graded stakes company a little last summer. But, those attempts came at just a mile and an eighth and his race record suggests he wants to go longer than that. Two miles will be a new test for ROCKETRY, but he has made his best efforts by far at the longest distances he has tried so far: ten and eleven furlongs. He also has two wins and two other money finishes over the Belmont course, so it's safe to say he likes it. The connections stand out, as well. ROCKETRY hails from the barn of trainer Jimmy Jerkens, a trainer who doesn't put horses in such ambitious spots without a very good reason. And, he gets the services of rider John Velazquez. Not only did Velazquez partner with Rocketry for his allowance win at Belmont, but he has already won a two-miler at Belmont. (He took the inaugural Belmont Gold Cup with Charming Kitten.)
Below are Nicolle Neulist's picks for the stakes races Thursday and Friday at Belmont. 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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