By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
When eight horses head to the Belmont Park starting gate
for Saturday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold
Cup (gr. I), plenty of attention will be focused on the talented European
shippers Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow.
The attention, of course, is understandable—it's not all
that common for accomplished runners from Europe to ship to North America and
contest a major prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), and it's even
less common for them to show up with fine dirt form on their records, which is
exactly what Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow can boast. After all, Mendelssohn won
the 2018 UAE Derby (UAE-II) on dirt at Meydan by a stunning 18 ½ lengths, and
Thunder Snow was victorious by 5 ¾ lengths over a top-class field of U.S.
runners in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on the same night.
But will their success at Meydan translate to success at
Belmont Park in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup? That remains to be seen, but
for a variety of reasons, I'll be leaning against both of them on Saturday.
For starters, I question whether their big performances
at Meydan are true measures of their abilities. On the night of the UAE Derby
and Dubai World Cup, the Meydan main track featured a strong rail bias, which
both Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow rode to victory while some of their key
rivals struggled with racing over the outer part of the track.
If you draw lines through those efforts, then the dirt
form of Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow comes back to earth a bit. There's no
doubt that they're very talented horses—they're both top-level winners on
turf—but Mendelssohn's second-best dirt performance was a runner-up effort in
the Travers Stakes (gr. I), in which he set a modest pace before weakening
late, and Thunder Snow—while very accomplished over the dirt track at
Meydan—lacks experience over other dirt tracks, and none of his other dirt races to date can really compare with his tour-de-force Dubai World Cup triumph.
But the bigger issue might be that both Mendelssohn and
Thunder Snow have done their best running on the lead, which could be
problematic since the expected Jockey Club Gold Cup favorite Diversify is a beast of a front-runner
with early speed that few route runners can match. The New York-bred son of
Bellamy Road used that speed quite effectively to win the 2017 Jockey Club Gold
Cup in gate-to-wire fashion, and he's been just as good or better this year,
rattling off back-to-back wins in the Suburban Stakes (gr. II) and the Whitney
Stakes (gr. I) while simply running his rivals off their feet.
With triple-digit Beyer and BRIS speed figures all over
his record, Diversify is a legitimately fast from start to finish, and he's
been particularly dominant at Belmont Park, where he's gone 6-for-8 while never
finishing out of the exacta. He's also 2-for-2 going 1 ¼ miles, with both of
those victories coming at Belmont Park.
In preparation for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Diversify
has been training up a storm at Belmont, posting back-to-back five-furlong
bullet workouts of :58.88 and :58.97 seconds. With his speed seemingly
sharpened by these quick moves, it's going to be tough for Mendelssohn or
Thunder Snow to keep up with this front-running sensation. Actually, I
would be a bit surprised if anyone is able to keep up with Diversify, either at
the start or at the finish, and I expect him to prevail in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second straight year.
Since I believe Diversify might just run Mendelssohn and
Thunder Snow out of their comfort zones, I'm tempted to look for a deep closer
to come running late and round out the exacta. The obvious choice would be Gronkowski, runner-up behind Triple
Crown winner Justify in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I), but I get the
feeling that Gronkowski benefited from passing tiring rivals in that lengthy,
testing race, and when faced with a less favorable scenario in the Travers
Stakes (gr. I) last month, he never fired at all and finished eighth of ten.
Now, Gronkowski missed his prep race for the Travers
after suffering a minor setback in training, so it's possible that he could
improve now that he's gotten a race under his belt and is returning to Belmont
Park. But he won't offer much value in the wagering, so I'm going to take a
shot with Discreet Lover instead.
An experienced veteran of 43 starts, Discreet Lover used to have quite a bit of
tactical speed, but the son of Repent has shown significant improvement since
switching to late-running tactics, which earned him a victory in the Excelsior
Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct earlier this year.
But more notably, Discreet Lover ran very well to finish
third behind Diversify in both the Suburban Stakes and the Whitney Stakes, so
it seems that when Diversify is in the field to ensure a fast pace, Discreet
Lover benefits and is able to produce more effective late runs. And while
Discreet Lover was never able to challenge while finishing twelfth in the
Woodward Stakes (gr. I) last time out, that was a bit of an oddly-run race and
Discreet Lover had a very wide trip, so I'm tempted to draw a line through that
effort and judge Discreet Lover off his previous form.
If you do want to include at least one of the Europeans
in the exotics, I would lean toward Thunder Snow, who has thus far shown a
consistently higher level of dirt form than Mendelssohn. Don't be too
discouraged by Thunder Snow's last-place finish in the Juddmonte International
(Eng-I) last time out—he was facing a very deep field in what was clearly a
prep for his fall campaign, and he also lost two shoes during the running.
2nd: Discreet Lover
3rd: Thunder Snow
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Jockey Club
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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.