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
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.
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.
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
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.