By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
On July 6th last year, two days after Independence Day, Belmont Park hosted a moderately interesting race card that featured the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II). But thanks to some major race schedule changes and purse enhancements, this year’s Independence Day celebration (scheduled for July 5th) promises to be one of the finest race days of the year at Belmont! The highlight of the five graded stakes races on schedule is the $1,250,000 Belmont Derby Invitational (gr. I), which has drawn a quartet of European invaders seeking a major victory. Throw in the grade I, $1,000,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational (with four more Europeans), an enhanced edition of the Suburban Handicap (gr. II), the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes (gr. III), and the Dwyer Stakes (gr. III)…wow!
Needless to say, this is going to be a great day of racing! Let’s start handicapping!
Belmont Derby (gr. I)
In my opinion, this race has the potential to offer some excellent value. The 3-1 morning line favorite is Toast of New York, a European shipper that has won his last three starts by a combined 30 ½ lengths. His most recent victory, in the group II UAE Derby at Meydan, was accomplished with an impressive burst of acceleration nearing the top of the stretch. However, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that all of Toast of New York’s victories have come on synthetic tracks, and that his lone start on turf yielded the poorest effort of his career.
There are two other European shippers that look more appealing. The first is Adelaide (7-2), winner of the group III Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh and most recently runner-up in the group II King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, whose success with North American shippers has been spectacular, Adelaide is proven over the ten-furlong distance of the Belmont Derby, and seems very well-suited to this race.
The other European I like is the French horse Gailo Chop, who is 2-for-2 at ten furlongs, 5-for-7 in his career, and unbeaten in three starts this year. Better still, he’s 3-for-4 on courses labeled "firm" in France, which—while still relatively moist by American standards—suggests that he should be able to adapt to the very firm Belmont turf course.
Among the American representatives, I really want to like the chances of Bobby’s Kitten, a horse I have written about rather extensively on this blog in the past. As many readers may know, I’m a huge fan of this colt, and I believe him to possess as much raw talent as any three-year-old in this country. Unfortunately, while I think he could give even the great Wise Dan a scare at a mile, I’m not sure I relish his chances going ten furlongs against several talented Europeans. That said, I wouldn’t want to leave him out of the exotics—both vertical and horizontal—and at 6-1 on the morning line, he definitely offers some value.
Another logical contender is Dance With Fate, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and most recently sixth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). While he’s only run once on turf, that one run was a decisive victory in a one-mile turf allowance race, in which he ran his final quarter in approximately :22 4/5 seconds. That’s the kind of stretch acceleration you need in order to win major turf races, and given his solid recent workouts, it seems that he has rebounded nicely from his run in the Derby. If he stays near his 10-1 morning line price, he’s absolutely worth a look.
Ah, but now comes the challenge of trying to pull all of these thoughts into some kind of handicapping strategy! Therein lies the challenge—this race is as wide-open as they come! Ask five people for a selection, and you might get five different answers. But since I have to make a selection, I’ll go with Adelaide on top, with utmost respect to Bobby’s Kitten. I will look to use Dance With Fate and Gailo Chop underneath in the vertical exotics, as well as Global View (runner-up behind Bobby’s Kitten in the $500,000 Penn Mile) and Pornichet (third last time out in the group I Poule d’Essai des Poulains, also known as the French 2,000 Guineas.) I might even try to get Sheldon into the mix as a 30-1 shot for trainer James Toner, who is winning at a 33% strike rate this Belmont meet. Two starts back, Sheldon was beaten a head in a ten-furlong maiden special weight on the turf, closing his final quarter in a very sharp :22 4/5 seconds.
Belmont Oaks (gr. I)—Group III stakes winner Xcellence is the morning line favorite off of two solid third-place finishes in the group I Prix de Diane Longines (French Oaks) and Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (French 1,000 Guineas), and figures to be hard to beat. However, I do like the chances of Flying Jib, a Juddmonte filly with three straight victories at up to a mile. Unlike Xcellence, whose best efforts have come over soft turf courses, Flying Jib has proven successful on relatively firm turf in the past, which could prove beneficial here at Belmont Park.
Suburban Handicap (gr. II)—Romansh ran great when beaten just 1 ½ lengths last time out in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), a distance that was probably a bit short for him. I believe that the stretch-out to ten furlongs will only strengthen his chances on Saturday, and he looks difficult to beat in this spot.
Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes (gr. III)—This race looks wide-open to me, so I’ll take a chance with the 15-1 shot Declan’s Warrior, who has run well at Belmont Park in the past and figures to get a decent pace setup. In addition, John Velazquez has picked up the mount.
Dwyer Stakes (gr. III)—Tiz Dark is the morning line favorite off of an eye-catching maiden win here at Belmont, but Kid Cruz could not have been much more impressive in winning the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont on June 7th, rallying from last to score a 3 1/4-length victory. Granted, he got a good pace setup that day, but with the speedy and unbeaten Captain Serious likely to ensure a quick pace, I think Kid Cruz will come rallying to victory once again.
Who do you like this weekend?