This is the kind of weekend racing we need more of—groups of graded stakes races with full and competitive fields. Later I’ll post my picks for the Brisbane Winter Carnival races at Eagle Farm, including the prestigious G1 Stradbroke Handicap. Here I have handicapped the Belmont graded stakes for Friday and Saturday, all except for the big one—the G1 Belmont Stakes—which I’ll post about on Saturday before race time.
G3 Hill Prince (Friday, Race 9)
Doubtlessly, lightly-raced Affirmatif will go off favorite, but I’m not ready to concede anything to him. I’ve had my eye on Japanese-born Florentino even before his maiden effort last August at Saratoga—he’s a three-quarter brother to Japanese G1 mare Rhein Kraft. Under the guidance of jockey Alan Garcia, Florentino has blossomed at three racing on turf, with two wins, a second and a most recent third in the G3 Transylvania Stakes. He comes in fresh off a two-month break for Kiaran McLaughlin.
Shug McGaughey-trained Conservative also looks strong here, returning to turf after finishing second to Advice in the G2 Lexington; Kent Desormeaux retains the mount. I absolutely love his damside breeding—his G1-winning dam Oh What a Windfall is a full-sister to eight-time G1 victress Heavenly Prize, both out of the unraced Oh What a Dance whose multiple-graded stakes winning dam Blitey (Maskette, Test, Ballerina) was a daughter of the great champion three-year-old filly (CCAO, Delaware Oaks, Mother Goose) Lady Pitt. Too bad “he” is not a “she.”
As a son of Lemon Drop Kid, Lime Rickey comes in with the best turf cred, going back to his second-place finish behind Pioneerof the Nile over the Saratoga turf last August. Other than his ill-advised attempt in the G1 Wood Memorial, Lime Rickey hasn’t finished out of the money in four turf tries this year, including narrow losses in the Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach, and G3 Palm Beach. He could finally get a fast early pace to run into late.
For a longshot flyer, how about Mike Trombetta-trained Despite the Odds? In three lifetime starts, he’s never run beyond 6 furlongs, or on anything other than a fast dirt track, yet his dam Lady Aloma has produced three turf winners including 2002 Canadian champion turf female Chopinina. He trains over the Tapeta at Fair Hill, so maybe ready for the switch. On the other hand, Trombetta might just be hoping this race comes off the turf...
G2 Brooklyn Handicap (Friday, Race 10)
Once upon a time, there was something called the New York Handicap Triple Crown, consisting of the Metropolitan, Brooklyn and Suburban handicaps. Only four horses accomplished it: Whisk Broom II (1913), Tom Fool (1953), Kelso (1961) and Fit to Fight (1984). How tough a task was the Handicap Triple? Consider, the great Forego thrice won the Brooklyn (1974, 1975, 1976), twice won the Metropolitan (1976, 1977), and once the Suburban (1975)—and not once all three in the same year! Oh, where, oh where have the great handicap route horses like Forego gone?
This year not a single runner from the Metropolitan is entered here (no surprise in this era of barely-raced horses), but last year’s winner Delosvientos is back, and reunited with jockey Eibar Coa. His first outing this year was shockingly bad, though, so I’ll take a stand against him. Ditto Rick Dutrow-trained Rising Moon, whose fragility frankly scares me.
Either of Tom Albertrani’s horses looks good, but apparently he’s leaning towards entering Ea rather than Barrier Reef. Whichever, I’m with him, as his stakes strike rate this year has been phenomenal, and Ea has posted four strong races this year—though he’s never gone 12 furlongs, his breeding (Dynaformer, by a Seeking the Gold mare) and late running style suggests it shouldn’t be a problem. Nite Light disappointed in last year’s Brooklyn, but with a race under his belt looks good here—distance has never been a problem for him. Brazilian-born Alcomo is certainly bred to get 12 furlongs, and his two outings this year indicate he’s in for a piece here. Interesting that Cornelio Velasquez abandoned Rising Moon to ride back on Alcomo...
G2 True North Handicap (Saturday, Race 6)
After a short head loss to Kodiak Kowboy in the G1 Carter at 7 furlongs in April, this looks to be the perfect distance for six-year-old Fabulous Strike; he’s been working extremely well leading up to this, and you got to love him with Ramon Dominguez up. He does break from the far outside post, but it’s only a six-horse field.
Since leading, but ultimately finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Two Step Salsa has impressively won both his starts in Dubai, including the G2 Godolphin Mile on Dubai World Cup day. In three May workouts at Belmont, he’s posted impressive workouts, and I love him with Garrett Gomez aboard. He may be ready to take his place among the top American sprinters.
Jimmy Jerkins-trained Desert Key is another four-year-old emerging sprint star—after nearly seven months off, he narrowly lost at Belmont first out this year, but has trained forwardly since. New rider John Velazquez will have him running on pace and among the first three at the wire.
Once injured and retired, last year’s champion sprinter (and defending True North winner) Benny the Bull has reappeared for IEAH and trainer Rick Dutrow, but I just can’t get excited about him here first back against Fabulous Strike. As the only entrant who comes well of the pace, his rail post also hampers him. A win by him would be a surprise.
G1 Just a Game (Saturday, Race 7)
Champion turf mare Forever Together looks extremely strong here, particularly as Rutherienne validated her G2 Jenny Wiley form by winning the G2 Nassau at Woodbine, and even I Lost My Choo came back to win a state-bred stakes races at Belmont. I just can’t look beyond her for an upset winner.
Last year Carribean Sunset butted heads with top European filly milers Halfway to Heaven and Lush Lashes; last out she finished second behind My Princess Jess in the G3 Beaugay from an outside post. She drew the rail, and acquires the services of Ramon Dominguez—the mile distance perfectly suits her. If the sting is out of the turf, I’ll back My Princess Jess in the exotics. However, if the grass is firm, outsider Diamondrella could stretch out and get a piece.
G2 Woody Stephens (Saturday, Race 8)
I’m just not feeling the vibe for This Ones for Phil. Instead, Munnings should improve off his initial 2009 start, and earn his first graded stakes victory. Recent Darley purchase Everyday Heroes ran terrific to win the G3 Hirsch Jacobs on Preakness Day, but drifted badly late—I would have loved to see blinkers on him, but alas, not to be. This will be his first effort beyond 6 furlongs, but he runs well late so distance shouldn’t be a problem. For a real longshot flyer, I’ll wager a little on Hello Broadway who Barclay Tagg finally returns to his best distance, and removes his blinkers (and Tagg is 45% winner with that equipment change).
G1 Acorn (Saturday, Race 9)
While Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Justwhistledixie looks tough here—and certainly among the top three if healthy—I’m taking a gamble on lightly-raced Funny Moon. She comes in off an allowance win over older mares; the second-place finisher Solo Piano came back to win wire-to-wire at Belmont on Wednesday over G3-placed Forest Trail. In addition to her sire Malibu Moon, I love her damside breeding, with her dam Fun Crowd by G1 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer, and her second dam Populi being a half-sister to G1 Belmont Stakes winner Temperance Hill—who loved the slop! Who better to win this three-year-old filly classic on Belmont Stakes Day?
While I love seeing the return of Doremifasollatido, I’m just not sure she wants 8 furlongs. However, she loves the Belmont surface and I never count out a Jimmy Jerkins horse. Steve Klesaris brings G3 Tempted victress Livin Lovin back after a seven-month break in a G1 race? Wow, that’s ballsy! I think I’ll stick with more current form and go with McLaughlin’s “other” trainee, Dream Play who comes in off a wire-to-wire win in the G2 Comely.
G1 Manhattan Handicap (Saturday, Race 10)
Probably the toughest race of the day, the Manhattan features no less than five G1 winners—but no Einstein. However, ten-year-old Better Talk Now makes his 50th career start—without regular rider Ramon Dominguez. This year’s race, though, belongs to the young guns.
Court Vision and Gio Ponti finished one-two in last October’s G2 Jamaica over the Belmont turf, and both look to be prime contenders here, as does Cowboy Cal. Court Vision narrowly lost G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap to Kip Deville before unsuccessfully attempting the Pro-Ride surface in the G1 Santa Anita Handicap; last out he finished behind Einstein in the G1 Turf Classic, so his current form is impeccable. Gio Ponti nipped Ventura to win the G1 Frank Kilroe Mile last out—and won the G3 Hill Prince here last year. Cowboy Cal starts from the far outside post 13, so he’ll need to work hard early to get on pace. However, with regular rider, John Velazquez up, he should stay on for a place in the exotics, particularly after his strong second place showing against Einstein last out.
My longshot flyers here: if turf is firm, Mark Hennig-trained Wesley with Kent Desormeaux up could pull a shocker—he’s definitely coming into his own as a quality turfster. If the course is soft or yielding, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see Cosmonaut leading across the wire.