Saturday’s $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1), the centerpiece of a five-stakes extravaganza on “Stars and Stripes Day,” is shaping up to be a terrific renewal.
According to NYRA publicity, the 1 1/4-mile inner turf affair is expected to lure Aidan O’Brien’s recent Royal Ascot winner Hunting Horn and Threeandfourpence as well as Pia Brandt’s Group 3-placed Kingstar from Europe along with the cream of the American turf sophomores. Penn Mile (G2) winner Hawkish is likely to take on the respective top four from the Pennine Ridge (G3) – Catholic Boy, Analyze It, Channel Cat, and Untamed Domain – while renewing rivalry with Penn Mile runner-up Way Early, fourth Maraud and fifth Encumbered. Triple Crown trail veteran My Boy Jack, fifth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) last out, is set to revert to turf for the first time since his juvenile campaign.
Hawkish worked in company over Belmont Park’s inner turf on Sunday, a move orchestrated by trainer Jimmy Toner to keep him rating kindly ahead of his first distance test. Under jockey Manny Franco, the Artie Schiller gelding gave older stablemates Manitoulin and Violet Blue a sizeable head start but smoothly caught up to clock a half-mile in :49.01 (around the “dogs”). Manitoulin, the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) winner and Manhattan (G1) fourth bound for the July 28 Bowling Green (G2), and Violet Blue, eyeing next Sunday’s River Memories, finished in :49.94.
“I told Manny to track them,” Toner said. “I said that I want to see how comfortable he is behind other horses and if he gets too close or too anxious, just ease out a bit. I couldn’t ask for more – five lengths (behind) and sat, sat, sat, and then the closer he got to them, I thought he was going to run over them, but Manny just moved him out a little bit and he went. The main thing was to get him to relax behind horses and it was no problem. (Manny) said he rated perfectly. When he turns into the lane, he said he knows where the wire is and he starts to get aggressive. As long as he settles before that, he’s good, and that’s what he did this morning.
“He’s doing really well. His attitude’s been good and he’s been training good. His major breeze was last week (five furlongs in a bullet :59.63 over the course) and today, we were just trying to do a little maintenance breeze with him but also teach him to relax a little more, which he did.
“You don’t know until you try,” Toner added of the step up from a mile. “We know he’s a top miler and that’s the unknown factor here, if he can get the mile and a quarter, but we’ll find out. He gallops a mile and a half every day. I think the key is being ratable. If he isn’t too aggressive early and settles in, I think you’re OK. I think it’s when you get those speed-type or fast horses that are not ratable, or get aggressive, then it’s hard for them to settle in to go a mile and a quarter. So far, he’s shown that he’s OK with everything.”
Catholic Boy, who handed Analyze It his first loss in a gutsy Pennine Ridge, toured a half in company with unraced Eagle Pass at Saratoga Saturday. The pair went in :49.39, around the dogs, over the firm Oklahoma training turf.
“It was kind of like a maintenance half,” trainer Jonathan Thomas said, “but I felt like he did everything well, finished up nicely and galloped out well. All in all, it went nicely. More than anything, I wanted to see him moving well, happy, and comfortable in his work. Obviously, he’s got a lot of foundation with numerous runs under his belt. We’re only trying to keep him happy.”
Analyze It polished off his preparations at Belmont on Sunday, covering five-eighths in 1:02.76 in company with older Grade 2 scorer Projected (who posted the same time).
“He went great, so he’s on target for the Derby,” trainer Chad Brown said of Analyze It. “I thought he ran into a really good horse in Catholic Boy in the Pennine Ridge. He ran very well; our horse had no excuse. He might’ve had a little time between races where I could’ve had him a little better. It’s not an excuse, he had every chance to win, but I believe this horse can move forward now that he has some recent fitness in him. I might’ve given him a little too much to do after the Transylvania heading into that race.”
Graham Motion, trainer of Derby possible Untamed Domain, also believes his pupil can do better than in the Pennine Ridge.
“We kept Untamed Domain eligible, so there is a chance he could run,” Motion said. “He’s been doing well. I’m upset with myself for the way he ran last time. We kind of changed tactics on him and took him out of his game (with a premature move) and it blew up.
“He’s a horse who wants to be left alone early in the race. We always thought a mile and a quarter was within his range. I think his last race, you can put a line through it.”
The companion $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1), also at 1 1/4 miles, likewise has international flavor. O’Brien has mentioned multiple classic performer Happily as a potential entrant, if she doesn’t opt for the Eclipse (G1) at Sandown the same day. NYRA included fellow O’Brien trainee Athena as another possible, although she just finished third in Sunday’s Pretty Polly (G1) in her second race in 10 days. Last year’s Natalma (G1) vixen Capla Temptress is definitely on course, while multiple French stakes-placed Chipolata was due to join trainer Christophe Clement Sunday from brother Nicolas’ yard.
“My brother has been training her for the past month, and he’s told me good things,” Clement said. “I’ll see for myself once she clears quarantine, but I certainly think she’ll get the distance.”
The American-based contenders are the trifecta from the Wonder Again (G3) – La Signare, Significant Form, and Mighty Scarlett; Edgewood (G3) winner Toinette; Herecomesthebride (G3) heroine Thewayiam and third Brattata; and Southern Californians Paved and Fatale Bere.
The Wonder Again preppers all worked at Belmont this weekend. La Signare negotiated four furlongs, around the dogs on the inner turf, in :49.01 Sunday.
“She’s training well coming into it,” trainer Brian Lynch said, “but the test is the mile and a quarter. I’m confident. She seems like she has great stamina.”
Significant Form and Mighty Scarlett tuned up over the course Saturday, the Brown duo striding out five panels together in 1:00.50.
“They both ran well,” Brown said of their placings in the Wonder Again. “It was a bit disappointing for Significant Form as the favorite. She had every chance to win turning for home and it just wasn’t her day. I’m confident given the way she’s training that she can rebound off that effort.
“For it being her first try in a stakes race, I thought Mighty Scarlett ran really well. I think more distance should help her.”