Bloom Racing Stable’s Henley’s Joy had gone winless since last December’s Pulpit S., but the son of Kitten’s Joy thrived on the step up to 1 1/4 miles and furnished a 20-1 upset in Saturday’s $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1).
The first leg of NYRA’s inaugural turf triple, the Belmont Derby presented a tale of trips, and a longshot trifecta, that suggest the form isn’t ironclad going into the August 4 Saratoga Derby and September 7 Jockey Club Derby back at Belmont.
The plot twists came right out of the gate as Moon Colony, who’d never been on the lead, set a pressured pace on the hedge. Blenheim Palace, the blinkered pace support for Aidan O’Brien stablemate Cape of Good Hope, hounded him through splits of :23.31, :47.80, and 1:11.60 on the firm inner turf. That was a much faster tempo than in the Belmont Oaks.
Demarchelier, unbeaten hero of the Pennine Ridge (G3) over the course, unexpectedly lost ground on the backstretch and pulled up with an injured right front. Described as “moderately lame” by the on-call veterinarian on the NBC telecast, he was vanned back to trainer Chad Brown’s barn for further evaluation. Daily Racing Form’s David Grening later reported that Demarchelier would undergo surgery for a lateral condylar fracture.
Meanwhile, leadership was changing hands as Moon Colony succumbed to the 16-1 Social Paranoia entering the stretch. Henley’s Joy, who had been perched just behind the front runner in a ground-saving third, now swung out into the clear and took off. Ridden for the first time by Jose Lezcano, the Mike Maker trainee capitalized on his textbook passage to overhaul Social Paranoia by three-quarters of a length in 1:58.29.
“The horse seemed very comfortable,” Lezcano said. “Around the backside, I was a little worried he was kind of jumping off the bridle. When I asked him to take off, it was easier because of how he broke out of the gate.”
Social Paranoia’s rider, Manny Franco, tipped his cap to the winner.
“I got the trip that I wanted,” Franco said of the stalker who raced in tandem with Henley’s Joy before getting first run. “The horse responded to me every time that I asked. I just got beat by a better horse. This is the second time that I’ve been on him and he ran great for me. I could not ask for more.”
The 10-1 Rockemperor, last in the early going, flashed home in third. Beaten a grand total of 1 1/4 lengths in his U.S. debut for Brown, the French import has claims to improve on this result next time.
“Very good effort – he just didn’t break good enough to be closer up front,” Hall of Famer John Velazquez recapped. “Following the start, he came out with a good run and finished up well.”
Stablemate Digital Age also gained in fourth. Seismic Wave, the lukewarm 7-2 favorite off his second to Demarchelier in the Pennine Ridge, wound up fifth. Next came Plus Que Parfait; Standard Deviation, another of Brown’s quartet; Cape of Good Hope, who couldn’t benefit from the pace set-up; Moon Colony; English Bee; Spinoff; Blenheim Palace; and Master Fencer. The also-eligible, He’s No Lemon, was scratched.
Henley’s Joy sparked a $43.80 win mutuel, and his first graded tally improved his scorecard to 11-4-3-0, $953,160.
“It’s such a big race to win and it’s so important,” Jeffrey Bloom said, “but for this particular horse, he’s had the worst racing luck, and he’s just been so honest – so many rough trips – it was just so gratifying to see him be able to show everybody how talented he is. He’s had so many near-misses in situations where things didn’t go right and he answered the call today in a big spot.”
Assistant trainer Nolan Ramsey, whose grandparents Ken and Sarah bred Henley’s Joy, also noted his hard-luck reputation.
“It was great,” Ramsey said. “I was kind of expecting it. He’s a horse I hate to make excuses for, but it seems like every race he’s got some sort of excuse. Today, he got the perfect ride and a clean trip and he really relished the distance.
“He shows up. He’s very consistent. He’s never really run a bad race. We knew a mile and a quarter would fit him, so we were confident going in, but obviously it was a really tough field so we knew he needed a clean trip, and that’s what he got.”
A debut winner on the Ellis Park turf last summer, Henley’s Joy made it two straight in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile and missed by a nose in a frenetic Bourbon (G3). He threw in a clunker over yielding ground in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), checking in 13th of 14, but rebounded with a vengeance in the aforementioned Pulpit at Gulfstream.
After coming up a neck shy of landing the race named in his sire’s honor, the Kitten’s Joy, Henley’s Joy tried a dirt experiment in the Risen Star (G2) and didn’t care for it in 10th. Back on turf, he was a half-length runner-up in the Transylvania (G3), a troubled eighth behind Digital Age in the American Turf (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day, and fourth off a steady pace in the Pennine Ridge. Social Paranoia had finished third in those last two, but more favorable circumstances lifted Henley’s Joy here.
The Saratoga Derby will offer another shake of the kaleidoscope.