Will Rugbyman Upset the Dwyer Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

For a Grade 3 with a purse of just $300,000, Saturday's one-mile Dwyer Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park has drawn a remarkably deep, accomplished, and international field.

Just look at the achievements of the seven entrants-two are Grade 1 winners, two more are Grade 2/Group 2 winners, and two others have suffered narrow defeats in listed stakes races. Here's the only problem—the most accomplished runners are entering the Dwyer off disappointing efforts, while the least accomplished runners enter the Dwyer in career-best form. Mixed together, that makes for a tricky and even downright unusual handicapping challenge that could be among the highlights of the weekend.

Much of the attention will be focused on Mendelssohn, and deservedly so. Trained by Aidan O'Brien, the well-bred son of Scat Daddy won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) last November and showed an affinity for dirt when romping to a stunning win in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in March at Meydan, leading from start to finish en route to a dominating 18 ½-length triumph.

But Mendelssohn did benefit from a strong rail bias that favored speed horses, and when presented with wildly different circumstances in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)—he was bumped hard at the start and never got anywhere near the lead over a sloppy, sealed track—he was eased to finish last, more than 70 lengths behind the winner.

The question is, which Mendelssohn will show up in the Dwyer Stakes? Obviously, the smaller field (and presumably dry track) on Saturday should be to Mendelssohn's liking, and since the Dwyer field doesn't contain much speed, he should have an easier time assuming his customary position on or near the lead. But then again, I don't think Mendelssohn's UAE Derby win should necessarily be taken at face value, given that he did enjoy a very favorable setup while facing competition of questionable quality. Mendelssohn's reputation will ensure that he receives support in the Dwyer, but I think he's vulnerable to an upset.

Firenze Fire won the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) over this track and distance last fall, but he benefited from rallying into a fast pace that day and his form since then has been less inspiring; he was fourth in both the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) and Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. II) before coming home eleventh in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 23 lengths. He's been on the go pretty much non-stop since his debut last June, with five starts under his belt this year alone, and could find it tough to rebound even with a drop in class and distance for the Dwyer Stakes.

Noble Indy enjoyed a memorable winter campaign that culminated with a hard-fought win against a quality field in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), but he subsequently finished seventeenth in the Kentucky Derby and last in the Belmont Stakes, beaten 54  lengths. His effort in the latter race was particularly surprising since he failed to show any of his typical early speed and retreated steadily throughout the race. Trainer Todd Pletcher shows confidence by running Noble Indy right back in the Dwyer, but I personally find the colt tough to endorse off his back-to-back disappointments in the Derby and Belmont.

Also needing to rebound is Mendelssohn's stablemate Seahenge, winner of the seven-furlong Champagne Stakes (Eng-II) at Doncaster last September. An accomplished runner on turf, Seahenge gave dirt a try in both the UAE Derby at Meydan and the Pat Day Mile Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, but he was beaten by double-digit margins on both occasions and will likely need to step up his dirt form significantly to contend for victory in the Dwyer.

So if all of the proven runners in the Dwyer have major questions to answer, could one of the three unheralded runners be poised to spring an upset? Certainly you could make a case for Seven Trumpets, whose form going a mile or less is solid, but the Dale Romans-trained colt has never won away from Churchill Downs and was soundly beaten in his three previous graded stakes tries. Fixedincome Larry is also mildly interesting; he's has never run beyond seven furlongs and has never faced winners, but he can boast a win at Belmont Park, having rallied to prevail in a seven-furlong maiden special weight on June 8th.

But I'm going to pass on those two and instead take a shot with Rugbyman. He might be the least-experienced colt in the Dweyer with just three starts under his belt, but that also means he's thoroughly untested and could have a bright future. He's certainly bred to be a top-class colt, being by the three-time leading U.S. sire Tapit out of Zaftig, winner of the Acorn Stakes (gr. I) going a mile at Belmont Park.

Trained by Graham Motion, Rugbyman opened his career with a respectable third-place finish sprinting seven furlongs at Keeneland in April, then stretched out to a mile at Belmont and romped by 14 lengths over a muddy, sealed track that he clearly relished. Furthermore, any thought that his effort might have been a mud-induced fluke was put to rest when Rugbyman came back to finish a strong second in the 8.5-furlong Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont, rallying wide from off the pace to finish second, beaten just a neck while earning a 90 Beyer speed figure.

Rugbyman might have won the Easy Goer if not for racing greenly down the homestretch—he was carrying his head to the right and did not appear to be fully focused on running, refusing to go by his rivals once he reached even terms. Perhaps as a result, Motion will add blinkers for the Dwyer, an equipment change that could help the colt focus and finish off his run with more authority. He's already one of the fastest horses in the field in terms of speed figures, and if Rugbyman runs more professionally in the Dwyer, I think all of his rivals could be running for second place. That "secondary" battle could well be won by Mendelssohn, who strikes me as the most likely of the accomplished runners to regain top form on Saturday.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Dwyer Stakes?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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