Florida Derby (G1) runner-up HOFBURG, seventh last out in the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, breezed a bullet five furlongs in 1:01.03 over Saratoga’s fast Oklahoma dirt training track on Sunday in his final major work for the 150th Belmont Stakes (G1).
The chestnut son of Tapit worked in company with Met Mile (G1)-bound Good Samaritan, who clocked a half-mile in a bullet :48.21. Hofburg had Neil Poznansky in the saddle, worked outside of his Grade 2-winning stablemate and pulled away past the wire.
“We wanted to do a little bit more with Hofburg than with Good Samaritan,” trainer Bill Mott said. “We let them both work under the wire, then I wanted to make sure Hofburg had a good gallop out. Both horses went well, and I was very pleased. Hofburg couldn’t have worked better.”
The Juddmonte Farms homebred brings just one win into the Belmont Stakes, breaking his maiden in his second career start on March 3 at Gulfstream Park. Hofburg ran second while making his stakes bow in the Florida Derby next out and filled the seventh spot after steadying twice on the far turn in the Kentucky Derby most recently.
“We loved him as a two-year-old a year ago at this time, and we liked his chances going into the Kentucky Derby,” Mott said. “I know he wasn’t very seasoned and he had only three races going into it, and there were probably a few people who were quite skeptical about us running him in the Derby off only three races, but I felt very confident in him and I think he ran a good race. He didn’t get the desired trip and he had a little traffic problem during the course of the running of the Derby. If you are going to run in the Kentucky Derby, that can happen if you are a closing kind of horse who has to come through traffic.”
Instead of sending his charge to the Preakness Stakes (G1), Mott opted to give Hofburg plenty of time to recover from his Derby experience and target the Belmont Stakes.
“We’ve had good time to recover from the Derby, which probably makes it a bigger challenge for Justify,” the Hall of Fame conditioner said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. We didn’t hit the board in the Derby and didn’t see any big advantage to running in the Preakness. We just pointed for the Belmont. We have to do what’s best for us, and that’s what we did.
“I don’t think we have regressed any. I think we have moved forward. The main thing is that he comes out of this work in good shape. We’ll get down to Belmont and get him familiar with his surroundings down there, and if that goes well we will be ready to go.”
“Justify is a very good horse,” he added. “We have a lot of respect for him, he’s very talented, he’s got a lot of speed. His advantage, probably, is that he gets away from the gate good and shakes loose from the field. Whether that’s going to happen or not, I don’t know. He has a lot of natural speed.”
Hofburg is scheduled to ship to Belmont Park on Monday or Tuesday.
“I have a lot of confidence in (Hofburg)” Mott said. “I feel very good about him. It’s no walk in the park. You got to go run around Belmont, a mile and a half. We don’t take the challenge lightly, but that’s what we’re here for.”
Listed winner GRONKOWSKI was doing well on Sunday, one day after breezing five furlongs in 1:01.87 at Belmont Park for trainer Chad Brown. The dark bay son of Lonhro will make his U.S. debut in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
“He looks sound and looks really good,” Brown said. “I was very pleased with how he exited the work. So, he’s a go for the Belmont.”
Gronkowski was transferred to Brown after beginning his career in England with trainer Jeremy Noseda. As the points leader on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, the dark bay sophomore was headed to the Run for the Roses, but skipped the first jewel of the Triple Crown after developing an infection. He’ll go in the Belmont Stakes off a 1 1/4-length victory in the Burradon Stakes at Newmarket on March 30.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be going for his fourth Belmont Stakes triumph, and second straight, when saddling Grade 2 winners NOBLE INDY and VINO ROSSO on Saturday at Big Sandy. The duo came out of their Friday breezes in good order and will seek to improve on respective 17th- and ninth-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby last out.
Pletcher scored his first Belmont victory with the filly Rags to Riches, who outdueled leading sire Curlin in 2007 to become the first filly to win the “Test of the Champion” since Tanya in 1905 and only the third filly to prevail in the history of the contest. Palace Malice gave Pletcher another Belmont Stakes trophy in 2013 and, last year, Tapwrit prevailed by two lengths.
“In Rags to Riches’ case she was truly, truly bred for a mile and a half on the dirt,” Pletcher said. “She was also a very strong-galloping horse that was very impressive to watch train on a daily basis. She had that natural stamina and ability to get into a rhythm and carry that pace over a distance of ground.
“First of all, they both have pedigrees that fit this race,” he continued, speaking of Noble Indy and Vino Rosso. “Both of these horses have a pedigree to suggest they can handle it, with Noble Indy having (1992 Belmont winner) A.P. Indy influence on the top side, and Vino Rosso being closely related to Commissioner, who was unfortunately just beaten (a head) in the (2014) Belmont, on the bottom side.
“Both of them have that training style about them where they show good stamina in their gallops, good rhythms in their gallops and also have been successful at winning races at 1 1/8 miles already.”
The field for the 2018 Belmont Stakes will be drawn Tuesday evening. Expected to show up for the race draw are (in alphabetical order with jockeys): Blended Citizen (Kyle Frey), Bravazo (Luis Saez), Free Drop Billy (Robby Albarado), Gronkowski (Jose Ortiz), Hofburg (Irad Ortiz Jr.), Justify (Mike Smith), Noble Indy (Javier Castellano), Restoring Hope (Florent Geroux), Seahenge (Ryan Moore), Tenfold (Ricardo Santana Jr.) and Vino Rosso (John Velazquez).