The last leg of this week’s road trips for Picks and Ponderings take us to Belmont. After a visit to Churchill for Homecoming Stakes day, and then a visit to Santa Anita for the big day of Breeders’ Cup preps there, we go back east to look at the stakes races at Belmont. Four of the races are Breeders’ Cup Win And You’re In races: the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Classic), the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (Turf), the Vosburgh (Sprint), and the Flower Bowl (Filly and Mare Turf). The dirt fillies and mares get their chance in the Beldame, and the milers also get a chance to go one turn in the Kelso.
These races, along with the Santa Anita races, will be shown on NBC Sports from 5:30 PM ET to 8:00 PM ET. All turf selections are made turf-only.
Race 4: Kelso Handicap (GII), three-year-olds and up, one mile on the dirt, post time 2:27pm EDT
The Kelso Handicap, a $400,000 affair this year, is named after iron horse Kelso. He competed at ages two through nine, from 1959 through 1966. He was the champion three-year-old male in 1960, and the champion older horse from 1961-1964. All five of those years he was voted Horse of the Year. It is only fitting that there is a race named after him on the day of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, because he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in all five of his Horse of the Year seasons, an unprecedented feat. The Kelso was inaugurated as a two-mile turf race in 1980, and run that way until 1982. After a break in 1983, it returned as a 1 1/4 mile turf race in 1984, but was shortened to a mile in 1988. After being washed off the turf in 2009, it was made a dirt mile in 2010.
With the defections of so many of the top horses in the handicap division, Itsmyluckyday has found himself near the top of the older horse division. Trainer Eddie Plesa sent him the slow way up after recuperating from a pelvic fracture he sustained last year in the Pegasus Stakes (GIII). Maybe the Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) was a bit much first out, but after dialing back to smaller stakes and working his way through bigger and bigger, worked his way up to his first GI win in the Woodward. His camp has not said anything for sure about whether this horse, who is not Breeders’ Cup nominated, will supplement in, but here he shortens up from the nine furlongs of the Woodward back to eight, instead of stretching out for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He has won at a flat mile before; he annexed the Salvator Mile at Monmouth three starts back, his first graded win on the year. He keeps the blinkers on, and even though he can show speed if neither Bradester nor Red Rocks sends forth, he showed in the Woodward that he can rate with the blinkers. He is fast, he has the speed for a mile, and he is on a class drop: Itsmyluckyday is the one to beat. Bradester moves up from a win in the Ack Ack (GIII) last out, and was second behind Itsmyluckyday in the Salvator Mile (GIII) three back. He has not missed the board in three starts at the mile distance. He is another one who run well either on or near the front; he likes the lead, but showed in his Mineshaft Handicap win earlier this year that he doesn’t need it. Jockey Corey Lanerie returns from the win in the Ack Ack, and as long as he handles Big Sandy well, he has a great shot to get there if Saturday is not Itsmyluckyday‘s lucky day. River Rocks is taking a class rise here, but appears to be doing so at just the right time. He showed earlier this year, that he can handle Big Sandy just fine, winning a six-furlong allowance over it by daylight. One turn is old hat for him, as most of his races recently have come between six and seven furlongs. However, he has a very close second at a mile and a sixteenth, suggesting he should have the stamina for this mile. The biggest question with him is whether he will bounce off of two straight very strong races. If it’s not a setup for a bounce, but rather him really coming into his own at four, he could be a strong contender.
#7 ITSMYLUCKYDAY (4/5)
#5 BRADESTER (3/1)
#4 RIVER ROCKS (5/1)
Longshot: With Vyjack having run poorly in all three attempts over the Belmont track, this leaves only one longer shot who looks like he has a real chance. #2 GOLDEN TICKET (8/1) had been a perpetual bridesmaid since his dead-heat victory in the Travers. He raced well enough, and kept cashing checks in major races, but had found all kinds of ways not to get his nose on the line first. He turned that streak around last out in the Left Bank on the opening day of this Belmont meet. The Left Bank is a dirt mile at Belmont: it was his first race over the course, and he showed he liked the track and configuration. Jockey Joel Rosario returns from that effort. Golden Ticket has also never missed the board at a mile: he is 4-2-2-0 at the distance lifetime. This is significantly tougher company than he faced last out, but if things get a little too frisky up front between Itsmyluckyday, Bradester, and/or River Rocks, then Golden Ticket could pick up the pieces at nice odds.
Race 5: Beldame Stakes (GI), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 3:00pm EDT
This race is named after Beldame, who raced from 1903-1905 for August Belmont. In addition to beating top-level fillies and mares, she also won several top races against male company, including the 1904 Carter Handicap and the 1905 Suburban Handicap. The Beldame Stakes was first run in 1939, at 1 1/16 miles at Aqueduct. It was stretched to the 1 1/8 mile distance the next year, and despite a few more adjustments over the course of the years (going back as short at 1 1/16 miles and as long as 1 1/4), has been settled at this distance since 1991. The race was first conducted at Belmont in 1958, though moved between Belmont and Aqueduct before settling at Belmont in 1969. Though the Beldame is not a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, several Beldame winners have also won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at some point: Royal Delta, Ashado, Beautiful Pleasure, Personal Ensign, Lady’s Secret, and Life’s Magic.
Stopchargingmaria comes in here looking like the one to beat, and for good reason. After a slow start in Oaks preps at Gulfstream and Oaklawn, she finally got her hooves under her in the Black Eyed Susan (GII) at Pimlico. In that race, she stretched out to a mile and an eighth: the same distance as the Demoiselle (GII), which she won at age 2. She then won the Coaching Club American Oaks (GI) at the same distance, and then stretched even further to win the ten-furlong Alabama (GI). Here, she faces older for the first time. She will be tough at a mile and an eighth: she is three-for-three at the distance, all in graded company. She gets back John Velazquez, who rode her to her Alabama win last out. She is third off of a two-month lay; trainer Todd Pletcher wins at 24% third off the lay. There is a lot going for Stopchargingmaria…but the fact that she is a three-year-old facing older, combined with the fact that her speeds are not dynamite for the field, make her worth trying to beat. The best candidate for that is Endless Chatter. This filly is stepping into graded company for the first time, but she could not be doing so at a better time. She has won her last three: two allowances at Parx, and then a restricted stales at Saratoga. She drew the rail, a position from which she has won both times she has drawn it. She has pace versatility: she has garnered wins from the front end, from a stalking place, and from near the back early. Though lightly raced, this four-year-old filly is quite consistent: she is 9-4-3-1 career, with her only off-the-board finish being first off a three-month lay while she was still a maiden. This will be a test of class for this Chad Brown trainee, and there is plenty of suggestion that she can pass. There are no need-to-lead types in this race, though Belle Gallantey and Fiftyshadesofhay have often enjoyed it, and even Endless Chatter and Stopchargingmaria have been on it sometimes. If a fight for the front ensues too early, Stanwyck will be right there to pick up the pieces. She won the 1 1/16 mile Turnback the Alarm Handicap (GIII) in her only other start at Belmont, showing she can handle the surface. She has been very consistent this year: in six starts, she has never been off the board. The drawback is that she has not won yet this year, but that last start in 2013 was her Turnback the Alarm win. She should be able to come in for a smaller award no matter what, and if the pace gets too fast on the front, it could be a major one.
#1 ENDLESS CHATTER (5/1)
#3 STOPCHARGINGMARIA (5/2)
#4 STANWYCK (3/1)
Longshot: #2 TOASTING (8/1) has shown an affinity for Big Sandy, having a 7-3-0-1 record over it to date. She has also acquitted herself well enough at nine furlongs: in four starts, she hasn’t won, but she has two seconds and two thirds. She takes a class rise here from a win in the Sky Beauty Stakes on September 7th, run at the one-turn mile. She stretches out to the sweeping one-turn mile and an eighth here, but the configuration and surface should work to her favour. She also retains jockey Javier Castellano, who rode her to that win in the Sky Beauty. He has started out this Belmont meet a perfectly solid 19%, and wins route races at a hefty 26%. Though there are no true can’t rate types in the race, if the pace gets to be too much too fast, she could be coming on late.
Race 7: Flower Bowl Stakes (GI), three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one fourth miles on the inner turf, post time 4:07pm EDT
This race is named after Flower Bowl: quite aptly, as its namesake tended to do well going a route of ground. Flower Bowl’s stakes wins include the Delaware Handicap at ten furlongs, as well as the Ladies Handicap at twelve furlongs. As good as she was on the track, she was even better in the breeding shed: she produced Hall of Famer Bowl of Flowers, as well as sires Graustark and His Majesty. The Flower Bowl offers a $600,000 purse, and is a Win And You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Though the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf has existed since 1999, there are still only two horses who have won both the Flower Bowl and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf: Lahudood and Soaring Softly.
The name of the game is early speed: specifically, that this race has almost none of which to speak. The only horse in this field who shows much tendency to go to the front is Viva Rafaela. She does not need to be on the early lead to win, and has been able to win from a couple of lengths off early. That may even be her best style. Still, her early speed towers over the rest of the field, suggesting she will get it by default. If Javier Castellano can get her to relax on the front end and not set fractions too fast, she may have plenty left. The stamina is no question here: Viva Rafaela has won at this distance once before, and put up competitive runs at 1 3/8 and even 1 1/2 miles. The biggest drawback is that she is taking a class rise, but with such a plum pace setup, it seems the perfect time to try. Among the others, it seems being able to close into less-than-frisky fractions is the name of the game. Even though Abaco loves the Belmont course, it seems that even there she has had it her way when she won, with more pace in front of her. She looks like a strong possibility to hit the board, but probably won’t have the pace she needs to win. Strathnaver comes from a bit farther off the pace than would usually be optimal for the likely pace scenario here. However, she has closed well into fractions that weren’t lightning-quick before, as she did in her Bewitch (GIII) win last year. She has a win at this ten-furlong distance, and has shown herself to be able to run well anywhere between a mile and a mile and a half. Even though she does not have a win over Big Sandy yet, she proved three starts back in the Just a Game (GI) that she could run well over the course, finishing just a fast-closing nose behind Coffee Clique. Stephanie’s Kitten is another one who has shown strength closing into relatively slow fractions. In her last two races, she finished second in what may be, to date, the toughest filly and mare turf routes of the year: the Beverly D (GI) and the Diana (GI). In both of those races, which were shorter than the Flower Bowl, she closed into halves of 49 and 4: though she just missed in both of those cases, this field is not quite as difficult as either the Diana or the Beverly D were. She gets John Velazquez back, who rode her to her last win (the 2013 Just a Game), and trainer Chad Brown is winning at 27% on the turf. Given her class and speed, Stephanie’s Kitten may well be the morning line favourite, but she is deservedly so.
#3 VIVA RAFAELA (5/1)
#4 STRATHNAVER (4/1)
#9 STEPHANIE’S KITTEN (5/2)
Longshot: #5 STARSTRUCK (20/1) has run well stalking fairly close to the pace before, something that will help her given that there is not a lot of early speed here. That’s how she won the Matchmaker (GIII) in 2013, and that’s how she was going in the Robert G. Dick (GIII) three starts back until she clipped heels late and lost all chance. She can run well from farther off the pace if need be, though that would not be nearly so advantageous given the likely pace scenario. She is trained by Larry Jones, a trainer who means serious business with his shippers. Horses he ships out win at 25%. He also get Kerwin Clark to come down; Clark has been her jockey in her last four starts, including a win in the Matchmaker (GIII) at Monmouth two starts back. Clark and Jones win at 35%. She has the right people behind her, and she’s about the only one among the longer shots here who stands a good chance of not getting too far back of Viva Rafaela tries to get loose on the lead.
Race 8: Vosburgh Stakes (GI), three-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:41pm EDT
This race is named after handicapper and horse racing historian Walter S. Vosburgh. One of the founding members of the Jockey Club, he wrote “Racing in America, 1866 to 1921“, a seminal text on that period of history of the American turf. He also, in his role as the handicapper for the Jockey Club, was the first to develop and assign weights for the Experimental Free Handicap, a hypothetical race among top two-year-olds going into their three year old year, and something always quite curious to look back at after the Derby season is said and done. The race run in his honour began in 1940, two years after Vosburgh’s death. It was a seven-furlong affair from its inception until 2002, six and a half furlongs in 2003, and then has been run at six since then. The list of winners feature some of the all-time greats: runner and sire Bold Ruler, two-time winner Dr. Fager, three-time horse of the year Forego, and more recent stars like Housebuster, Affirmed Success, Artax, and Housebuster. This year’s edition offers a $400,000 purse, as well as a Win And You’re In berth for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
This race is a speed meltdown waiting to happen. Zee Bros, Dads Caps, Happy My Way, Private Zone, and Ribo Bobo all tend to like being on the lead. There will most certainly be a fight for the front end, setting up perfectly for a horse who comes from off the pace. Enter Palace. He may be chalk, but he is so strong here on both class and pace that he is a logical single. His speed is strong for the field. He cuts back from an impressive win at seven furlongs last out in the Forego last out, a distance that usually seemed a bit long for him. Here he cuts back to six, a distance at which he is 11-6-4-1 career. He also loves Belmont, having three wins and two seconds in five starts over the track. Pacewise, he sits a few lengths off, and is dangerous whether there’s a true meltdown or (in the case of the Vanderbilt (GI), for example…) a lone speed who goes a little too fast. Unless Palace wakes up on the wrong side of the hay, he is trouble for everyone here. Coup de Grace and Salutos Amigos are the only two other horses in the field who like to come in from off the pace, and though neither have the resume of Palace this year, they both have enough to recommend that they will do well. Coup de Grace is a three-year-old facing older company for the first time. He has raced sometimes on the lead, but more often his better races have come from the back of the pack early: a great tactic to take here, with all the early speed. This will be his fourth start in the Larry Jones barn, and he has been doing very well since that barn move. He has two wins, and a respectable third in the King’s Bishop (GI) since then. The third in the King’s Bishop was not bad; he was moving well late. Also, that race was seven furlongs; he cuts back to six here, a distance at which he is two-for-two. He will have to improve to win this race, but if he does progress, watch out. He is a crack sprinter among three-year-olds, and this is his chance to prove he is a top sprinter, period. Salutos Amigos steps up in class from allowance company last out, but has held his own in graded company this year with thirds in the Belmont Sprint Championship (GIII) and the True North (GII) this year. He is 4-1-0-2 at Belmont, with those two thirds being the ones in graded races. Six furlongs may be a slight bit short for him, but he does have one win at the distance. Palace would have to be a bit off for him to win, but he is working well enough and will have a plum enough pace setup that he should threaten for a share no matter what.
#1 PALACE (2/1)
#2 COUP DE GRACE (8/1)
#4 SALUTOS AMIGOS (6/1)
Longshot: The most likely speed of the speed is Zee Bros, but his ability to hold on late has been dicey at best this year, and he tends to get caught late. So, let’s instead go for a horse who will go off at long odds, who usually goes on the speed, but has enough races through his career in which he has rated to suggest he could try that again. Enter #8 RIBO BOBO (20/1). Even though he usually guns to the front, he has enough races where he has sit a little bit off the pace to suggest he can relax. He gets regular rider Pack Lopez back, and he comes in after a little two-month freshening. Trainer Jason Servis wins at 25% off of similar-length layoffs. He also really likes six furlongs; this war horse is 24-12-2-3 at six. This race will be the toughest test of his career, but if he can run back to his form from last year or earlier this, he has a long-shot chance.
Race 9: Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (GI), three-year-olds and up, one and one half miles on the Widener turf, post time 5:16pm EDT
Originally inaugurated as the Turf Classic Stakes in 1977, the race was renamed to honour turf writer Joe Hirsch in 2004. He started his career with the New York Times, but is best known for his work with the Daily Racing Form, where he wrote for over fifty years. This race offers a $600,000 purse, as well as a Win And You’re In berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Illinois-bred Buck’s Boy won both the Turf Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1998. Others to complete that double include Manila, Theatrical, Tikkanen, and English Channel who did it in the same year, and Little Mike, who won the BC Turf in 2012 but the Turf Classic last year.
This race is a wide-open affair, with everyone including morning line longest shot Hangover Kid having something (specifically, a bit of horse-for-course factor combined with a win at the distance) to recommend them. Imagining comes in after just being nailed by Main Sequence last out, but looks primed to turn the tables here. That was his second attempt at a mile and a half (his first since last year), and he has been working well since. Trainer Shug McGaughey is 24% in graded stakes races, and 22% second off the layoff. His speeds are strong for the field, he can strong strong efforts together, and he is 9-5-1-0 over the grass at Belmont. The aforementioned Main Sequence also comes in here with a solid shot. After being good yet a cut below the very top across the pond, he has come to the US and won two straight GI events, the United Nations and the Sword Dancer. He is 4-1-1-1 at a mile and a half, with his only off-board finish at the distance being at a mile and a half last June, in which he just missed third. The advantage that Imagining has over Main Sequence is the pace versatility. Imagining can run very well from the front, a stalking place, or the middle of the pack; Main Sequence is a definite off-pace type. Though Main Sequence is a very classy off-pace type, and does not need a blistering pace, Imagining‘s ability to run closer is an advantage her, as he will probably only have Twilight Eclipse to handle on the front. Finally, Big Blue Kitten comes back to his bailiwick, the turf marathons. He did win the Lure at 1 1/16 miles two starts back, but that was his first race since last November’s Breeders Cup Turf. He does have a win and a second at the Grade I level at a mile and a half, and puts up his best speeds in the marathon-type races. Trainer Chad Brown is 31% with horses coming in third off the lay, and he gets regular rider Joe Bravo back. Even though he does most of his running from a closing spot, he has also run well from a stalking place, which may help here given that there is not a plethora of early speed.
#3 IMAGINING (4/1)
#5 MAIN SEQUENCE (2/1)
#1 BIG BLUE KITTEN (5/2)
Longshot: #7 MEDAL COUNT (12/1) is taking the ambitious step up from three-year-old company to facing older. It appears that Dale Romans finally seems to have admitted that Medal Count has a future on the green stuff, and it is encouraging to see his first attempt versus older be on grass. This is only his second turf race, but he has run very well in both of his grass attempts: a late-running allowance win in January before his journey down the Derby trail, and then a tough run in the Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs last out, in which he was nosed out late by a late-running My Afleet. A mile and a half should not be a problem, given how willingly he was running late in the Belmont, over a surface that may not be his best. He will have to improve from his last out to win against tough older company like this, but his stamina and turf form suggest he could be charging late.
Race 10: Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI), three-year-olds and up, one and one fourth miles on the dirt, post time 5:50pm EDT
The Jockey Club Gold Cup has been a fixture on the New York racing calendar since 1919. Run at distances as short as a mile and a quarter and as long as two miles, it has always been a centerpiece of the handicap horse racing season. Its list of winners features five of the eleven Triple Crown winners: Affirmed, Citation, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, and Whirlaway. Other all-time greats to have annexed this race include Man o’War, Forego, John Henry, and five-time winner Kelso. This year’s edition offers not only a $1,000,000 purse, but also a Win And You’re In berth for the Breeders’ Cup. Horses to win both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic include Cigar, Skip Away, and Curlin.
Let’s get this out of the way: Moreno is going to send to the front. Much of what trainer Eric Guillot said on this week’s NTRA call may have been entertaining bluster, but in that case, he said what everyone knows: Moreno is going to send. He has become one of the best-regarded handicap horses in the country after his Whitney (GI) win and his Woodward (GI) second. However, his Woodward looked like a bit of a regression. With the stretch to a mile and a quarter, and some other possible speed, it makes sense to look elsewhere here. First among them is Zivo. He absolutely adores Belmont: in six starts, this New York-bred has four wins and two seconds over the oval. He made good on his only other attempt at a mile and a quarter, having scored decisively over Moreno and Prayer for Relief in the Suburban earlier this year. He comes from off the pace, but even then there is some versatility in how far off he needs to come from. Usually he comes from farther off, but four back he was only three or four lengths back early: something useful if Moreno does end up getting an uncontested lead. Another horse with a strong chance here is Tonalist, one of the three-year-olds trying older for the first time. His summer foray to the Spa was a bit disappointing, with a second-place finish in the Jim Dandy and a third in the Travers. Still, in the Travers, he rather perplexingly sent forth to challenge Bayern, basically a suicide mission given the distance and Bayern’s speed. It was surprising enough that he held for third. Here, he takes off the blinkers, helping his chances to settle back and not fight Moreno early. He has also shown his best over the Belmont oval, with wins in the Peter Pan (GII) and the Belmont (GI) in his only two starts over the oval. He is working like gangbusters, he gets Joel Rosario back, and he could make his first crack at older a winning one if he relaxes and gets a stalking trip. Big Cazanova ships from out west. He has done a lot of his work on the front end, so there is some risk that he will lock horns with Moreno. However, that is no guarantee: Big Cazanova can rate off the pace as well. If new rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. can judge the early pace in a split second (did Moreno fire? if so, how much pressure is Moreno going to get?) and put Big Cazanova in the right place, he could be a huge surprise. The stamina to get ten furlongs is no question: though all his races on this continent have been shorter, he crossed the wire first (though was disqualified to second) in a GI race in Peru. Getting a mile and a quarter will be no trouble for this son of Giant’s Causeway, and he will likely be a huge overlay thanks to all who chalk him up as “South American speed” and move on.
#4 ZIVO (6/1)
#8 TONALIST (4/1)
#12 BIG CAZANOVA (20/1)
Longshot: #5 PRAYER FOR RELIEF (15/1) last won in the Tenacious Handicap at Fair Grounds in December, but has been knocking on the door through the course of the year. He has been cashing plenty of checks in graded company: Second in the Pimlico Special (GIII), third in the Suburban (GII) and the Woodward (GI). His speed compares favourably with this field, and he was creditable in the Suburban, his only try over Big Sandy. He stretches out to the longest race of his career, but if jockey John Velazquez can rate him not too far off the early pace, he could hit the board or even win at big odds.
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