Startup Nation Looks Tough in Pilgrim Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

Although I’m sure many race fans are still trying to absorb the epic racing action of yesterday afternoon, those that overlook Sunday’s racing action will be missing out on a pair of key preps for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. I). These prep races are the $200,000 Pilgrim Stakes (gr. III) and $200,000 Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. III), both at Belmont Park. Each race is likely to supply one or two very highly-regarded contenders for the respective Breeders’ Cup divisions, so if you went to get a head start handicapping those always-puzzling juvenile turf races, this is a good place to begin. So let’s take a look at who’s running!

Pilgrim Stakes (gr. III)

A field of nine two-year-old colts and geldings will contest this 8.5-furlong turf race, with Startup Nation the morning line favorite at odds of 2-1. The Chad Brown-trained son of Temple City is unbeaten and virtually unchallenged in two starts thus far, both at the same distance as the Pilgrim. In his debut, a maiden special weight at Saratoga for New York-breds, Startup Nation sat in fifth early on before unleashing a spectacular rally on the turn to seize command of the lead and draw off to a two-length victory.

His next start came in the With Anticipation Stakes (gr. II), and if anything, Startup Nation was even more impressive than before. Trailing the field by seven lengths after a half-mile, the colt began to advance on the far turn, and then swept past the entire field with a decisive burst of acceleration that carried him to a three-length lead passing the eighth pole. He then cruised home while eased up late to win by 4 ½ lengths, having run his final five-sixteenths in about :29.50 seconds.

His primary challengers will likely include Face the Music and Imperia, the 1-2 finishers in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga. In that race, Face the Music set slow fractions of :23.86, :49.96, and 1:15.94, then threw in a sharp :23.55 fourth quarter that gave him a three-length lead passing the eighth pole. In the meantime, Imperia raced about 3 ½ lengths off the lead, and appeared beaten in the homestretch, but rallied well in the final furlong as the jockey of Face the Music began to ease up on his mount, allowing Imperia to get as close as a neck at the wire. Although Face the Music proved best on the day, Imperia made a good impression rallying into quick final fractions, and I believe that Imperia can turn the tables on his conqueror on Sunday.

Another logical contender is Strong Coffee, who broke his maiden by three lengths going 8.5 furlongs at Saratoga. Finishing behind him that day in second was Face the Music, although Strong Coffee’s moderate final fractions in his debut, coupled with his subsequent fourth-place finish in the With Anticipation Stakes, suggests that he might be in a bit deep today.

The last horse I’d like to mention is Offering Plan, another promising colt from the barn of Chad Brown. Offering Plan demonstrated terrific stretch acceleration in his lone race to date, running his final five-sixteenths in about :28 4/5 to score a 1 ½-length victory in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga. The only negative to his effort was that he actually lost a bit of ground through a very slow :25.64-second third quarter, but I don’t believe this is much of an issue.

So who do I like on top? I generally don’t like playing favorites in two-year-old races, but in this case, I believe Startup Nation is a standout and will be very difficult to beat. For second, I’ll take his stablemate Offering Plan, with Imperia to round out the trifecta.

Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. III)

Chad Brown once again holds a very strong hand in this race, being the trainer of Partisan Politics (romping winner of the P.G. Johnson Stakes at Saratoga), Lady Eli (narrow winner of an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga), and Tammy the Tornado (very impressive winner of a similar maiden event at Saratoga.) In my opinion, Chad Brown has a good chance to run 1-2-3 in the Miss Grillo, as each of his fillies look like major contenders in this spot, especially Partisan Politics and Tammy the Tornado. The question is—which filly is best?

Determining the answer to this question is not an easy task, but I believe that an examination of the post position draw can help simplify the decision. Lady Eli and Partisan Politics have drawn wide in posts ten and eleven, while Tammy the Tornado has landed in post one. Keeping in mind the possibility that Lady Eli and Partisan Politics could get hung wide on the turns, I’ll take Tammy the Tornado on top and hope that jockey Joel Rosario can save ground and find an opening turning for home.

Who do you like in the Pilgrim and Miss Grillo Stakes?

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