Belmont Stakes Begin September Hibernation

What do the following horses have in common? Secretariat, Forego, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Affirmed, Alydar, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Cigar, Easy Goer, John Henry, Arts and Letters, Riva Ridge, Skip Away, Holy Bull and fillies Personal Ensign, Genuine Risk, Lady’s Secret, and Winning Colors just to name a few?

The answer is they all won stakes at Belmont Park or Aqueduct in September.

September used to be a month where champions were made, the promise of fall, something to look forward to following the magic of Saratoga.

With the New York Racing Association now loading up its major stakes on single super cards at the end of Saratoga and the beginning of October, it has created a September doldrums, with that once exciting month of racing now merely a bridge between the big Saratoga finale and the Belmont Breeders’ Cup prep weekends. On several occasions, the latter falls on the final weekend in September, but even then it still leaves September pretty much devoid of big-time racing.

This year from September 9 thru October 1, NYRA has five stakes scheduled – the listed Christiecat, Seattle Slew, and Allied Forces Stakes, the grade III Noble Damsel Stakes, and grade II Sands Point Stakes, along with two New York-bred stakes.

For many racing fans that is a huge emotional letdown after the profusion of major stakes at Saratoga. Veteran racing fans have to find it difficult adjusting to that long a lull between Saratoga and major Belmont stakes. They remember big races like the Woodward and now defunct Marlboro Cup and Governor Stakes all being run at Belmont in September. One two occasions, Forego ran in all three of those stakes (the Governor Sept. 1, Marlboro Cup Sept. 13, and the Woodward Sept. 27). The Jockey Club Gold Cup was a two-mile race run in October, and often was merely a coronation for champions such as Kelso, Damascus, Buckpasser, Forego, Arts and Letters, Citation, Whirlaway, Nashua, and the marathon-loving mare Shuvee.

But times have changed, and the focus now is on mega-cards, which brings tremendous excitement on those few days. However, you are sacrificing an entire month that used to be greatly anticipated, revving up right after Saratoga. NYRA used to card big days in September, focusing on the Woodward, Man o’ War Stakes, Ruffian Handicap, Futurity, and Matron.

But that all changed when the Woodward was moved to the final weekend of Saratoga, which was stretched out into Labor Day. The Man o’War, which used to be the definitive grass stakes in New York and one of the most important in America, was moved earlier in the year. The Ruffian also was moved, losing the importance it once had. And the Futurity and Matron, once important 2-year-old stakes won by Secretariat, Citation, Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Affirmed, Nashua, Holy Bull, and fillies Top Flight, Busher, Beaugay, , Cicada, Bed o’ Roses, Numbered Account, Gallant Bloom, and Moccasin, were relegated to six furlong events in mid-October and had little or no bearing on the Breeders’ Cup or championship honors or previewing the following year’s classics.

The Personal Ensign Stakes has assured that older fillies now have to wait for the Beldame. The Forego and Ballerina at the end of Saratoga and the moving of the Fall Highweight Handicap eliminates any opportunity for a late August or early September sprint at Belmont. Add the fact that trainers now want or need at least a month between races and the result is all that dead space in September.

The question is, is it worth sacrificing what used to be an exciting month of racing for what now is an explosion of major stakes on two weekends at Belmont, usually in October, and Travers day?

In some ways I can understand NYRA’s thinking, and there is a great deal of anticipation for those big weekends, although the Belmont crowds still should be larger than they are. One would imagine that although crowds of 20,000 to 30,000, which those weekends should attract, are a thing of the past, they apparently do help fall attendance in the long run and do create an air of excitement, the kind we used to get from a single race, such as the appearances of Kelso, Forego, and Secretariat in the Woodward or Buckpasser, Damascus, and Dr. Fager squaring off in what many called “The Race of the Century.”

That brings us to this year’s super card double on Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, in which NYRA has separated the Jockey Club Gold Cup from its usual grouping of stakes and moved it up a week to share the card with the Champagne and Frizette Stakes, which appears to be a smart move, giving both weekends pretty much equal importance.

But there may be a slight snag this year, which is not your typical year. With Frosted’s defeat at 2-5 in the Woodward and four horses in a blanket finish, will the Gold Cup serve as nothing more than to determine who has the best chance of finishing third to California Chrome and Arrogate in the Classic, or maybe even fourth if Melatonin is as legitimate as he looked in the Santa Anita Handicap and Gold Cup. And let’s see what Nyquist does in the Pennsylvania Derby, and Dortmund is no slouch.

And we don’t even know yet if Frosted will run in the Gold Cup or train up to the Breeders’ Cup, and which race he will point for. Right now, Shaman Ghost, Effinex, and Mubtaahij look to be honest, solid horses, and the Eastern 3-year-olds look evenly matched, but were crushed by Arrogate’s freaky performance in the Travers. So do the Eastern horses have any hope of knocking off California Chrome, Arrogate and the other Californians? Right now it certainly doesn’t look like it, but stranger things have happened. We know Frosted is capable of much better on his best day and Shaman Ghost might just be peaking now and will relish the mile and a quarter.

On the filly front, will it be pretty much the same story? With four horses finishing only a length and a quarter apart in the Personal Ensign, will the Beldame merely determine who has the best chance of finishing fourth behind Californians Beholder, Songbird, and Stellar Wind in the Distaff? Cavorting just keeps winning, but how effective will she be against those heavy hitters going 1 1/8 miles over a track on which all are proven?

Obviously, there is no way of answering these questions and no one wants to demean the credentials of the top male and female Eastern horses, who are a talented, consistent  bunch, but so far no one has shown they can match the top California horses in brilliance and overall talent, especially on their home track.

No Eastern 2-year-old has blown us away so far, so you have to wonder if the Champagne and Frizette will produce anyone who can conquer the juvenile army that Bob Baffert likely will have assembled, headed by the impressive Del Mar Futurity winner Klimt.

Right now it looks as if the headliner of the two big NYRA fall weekends will be former European star Flintshire, who looks virtually unbeatable on the turf, unless something extraordinary comes over from Europe. And maybe Lady Eli will show up in the Flower Bowl. The Vosburgh will feature arguably the most accomplished sprinter in training, A. P. Indian, riding a five-race winning streak. We’re still waiting for the return of defending champ Runhappy, and we know California-based Masochistic can fly. Another California horse, Lord Nelson, could be the best of them all.

Getting back to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, even if you look at it as a two-horse race, with Arrogate training up to the race, can you put a 3-year-old with only one stakes race on his resume, no matter how off the charts it was, in the same class as California Chrome? Regardless of how extraordinary this colt may be, he still will be a mystery horse going into the Classic. No one can say with any authority whether or not he can duplicate that other-worldly performance or even come close to duplicating it, especially with pace pressure this time from California Chrome, Melatonin and other older horses. Remember, we’re still trying to figure out where Frosted’s Met Mile demolition came from. As spectacular as Honor Code was in last year’s Met Mile he couldn’t come close to duplicating it in the Classic.

Many believe that Frosted was the best horse in the Woodward, considering the ground loss and erratic running in the stretch, but looking back over his entire career, which has been perplexing at times, can he be trusted to fire his best shot in the Classic? Is he as effective at 1 1/4 miles? Despite his awkward start, dropping too far back and lugging in down the stretch, he still had the lead in the final eighth and couldn’t hold it, as Shaman Ghost had to alter course to avoid Frosted and still came home his final eighth in :12 flat to get the nod. Lost in all this is that a 48-1 Canadian invader was beaten three heads in the race.

But we all know what Frosted is capable of, so there is no reason to give up on him, especially with him running about 40 feet farther than the winner. He simply lost too much ground off a slow pace and being taken out of his running style. All we need to know now is what the plans are for him.

So, will NYRA be able to stir up interest in the Gold Cup, and will that race and the Beldame have any bearing on the Breeders’ Cup this year? Will Frosted show up to try for redemption or stay in the barn?

Those are just some of the questions that still need answering and among the many things to ponder. For New York racegoers, they have a whole month to think about it.

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