Playing Pletcher in the Pennine Ridge

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

There's plenty of high-class racing taking place around the world this week. Stateside, the action is a bit quiet compared to last week's stakes-packed Memorial Day weekend, but that doesn't mean there aren't interesting races to review. We'll focus our attention on the Pennine Ridge S. (G2) for three-year-olds at Belmont Park.

Inaugurated in 2014, the Pennine Ridge has quickly risen to prominence on the New York circuit. The about 1 1/8-mile turf test serves as a local steppingstone toward the rich Belmont Derby (G1), and the roster of winners includes Grade 1 heroes Divisidero, Oscar Performance, Catholic Boy, and Decorated Invader.

Trainer Chad Brown has won the Pennine Ridge twice and could certainly pick up a third victory on Saturday. He comes to the table with a formidable pair of contenders. #7 Unanimous Consent is arguably the best of the duo, having gone undefeated in three starts. The stretch-running colt was especially sharp in the 1 1/16-mile Woodhaven S. at Aqueduct last time out, surging from behind a modest pace to win by 1 3/4 lengths.

But #4 Napoleonic War also boasts strong credentials. Though he was beaten to fourth place with a troubled trip in the Transylvania S. (G3) at Keeneland, the son of War Front bounced back with a tenacious allowance optional claiming win at Belmont, battling from a few lengths off the pace to win the 1 1/16-mile turf race by a nose. Hot jockey Flavien Prat is picking up the mount.

But here's the problem—there's hardly any pace entered in the Pennine Ridge field. The majority of the entrants have done their best work from off the pace. Could this lend an advantage to the front-running #6 Emmanuel?

Trained by Todd Pletcher (who has won the Pennine Ridge twice), Emmanuel has shown flashes of talent while competing on dirt. He was tons the best in his first two starts, wiring a maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park by 6 3/4 lengths before employing identical tactics to smash a Tampa Bay Downs allowance optional claimer by 4 1/2 lengths.

An extremely wide trip cost Emmanuel any shot at victory in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2), where he rallied from off the pace to finish fourth. A return to pacesetting tactics in the Blue Grass S. (G1) produced a better effort, but Emmanuel was ultimately beaten to third place by future Kentucky Derby (G1) third-place finisher Zandon.

Emmanuel has never run on turf, but as a son of More Than Ready (who has sired five Breeders' Cup winners on grass), the surface switch could potentially be a positive. Certainly Emmanuel figures to work out a favorable trip setting a slow pace in the Pennine Ridge, and a couple of quick workouts over the Belmont turf course have given him some experience over the local footing. Throw in the presence of hot jockey Irad Ortiz (a 29% winner on turf), and Emmanuel has a live chance to upset the Chad Brown trainees.

For exotic wagers, #3 Limited Liability must be viewed as a live longshot with a chance to hit the board at a fair price. A son of acclaimed grass sire Kitten's Joy, the gray colt showed plenty of promise in his debut at Saratoga last summer, surging from off the pace to dominate a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight by 2 3/4 lengths.

Limited Liability wasn't quite as sharp in a subsequent pair of stakes tests, finishing third in both the With Anticipation S. (G3) at Saratoga and the Pilgrim S. (G2) at Belmont Park. But after taking the winter off, Limited Liability returned in a 1 1/16-mile turf allowance on April 16 at Keeneland and rallied from last place to win by a neck.

This effort was impressive on several levels. Not only did Limited Liability overcome an unfavorable pace setup and finish fast (sprinting the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :28.57 per Trakus), he counted the next-out allowance winner Play Action Pass (previously placed against stakes company) among his beaten rivals. Limited Liability may still have upside for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, and I'm interested to see how he performs in his second run of the season.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pennine Ridge?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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