by J. Keeler Johnson
Saturday was a big day for New York-breds at Belmont Park. Eight stakes races for locally-bred runners offered a combined $1.75 million in purse money, and exciting performances were commonplace throughout the afternoon.
Arguably the brightest equine star was Mr. Buff, who overcame a stumble at the start to prevail easily in the $300,000 Empire Classic Handicap. Despite his awkward beginning, Mr. Buff took command after a half-mile in :47.38, opened up in the homestretch, and rebuffed a challenge from longshot Dynamax Prime to win by a length in 1:48.75 for 1 1/8 miles. John Kimmel conditions the gelded son of Friend or Foe, who secured his fourth stakes victory of the season while guided by jockey Junior Alvarado.
A major day of racing in New York wouldn’t be complete without some success for leading trainer Chad Brown, who delivered as expected with a pair of victories. Build to Suit struck first, rallying strongly in the homestretch of the 6 1/2-furlong $150,000 Hudson Stakes to win by 2 1/2 lengths under Manny Franco. By rocketing the final sixteenth in a shade less than six seconds according to the chart, the son of Dominus recorded a solid final time of 1:15.88.
Later on the card, Brown’s capable grass mare Fifty Five won the 1 1/16-mile $200,000 Ticonderoga Stakes for the third consecutive year, rallying smartly with Javier Castellano in the saddle to score by a length in 1:40.76. The victory gave the five-year-old daughter of Get Stormy her eighth stakes success and her 11th victory overall from 22 starts.
Trainer Jeremiah Englehart also enjoyed a strong day. Always dangerous with juveniles on the New York circuit, Englehart kicked off the stakes action by sending out Critical Value—an impressive Saratoga maiden winner—to romp home by 5 1/2 lengths in the one-mile $250,000 Maid of the Mist Stakes. Reserved off the early pace under Alvarado, Critical Value rallied into contention on the turn and flew home the final quarter (better than :24.84 according to the chart) to stop the timer in 1:37.07.
Englehart returned to the winner’s circle when Captain Bombastic tracked the pace and narrowly held off Cleon Jones to prevail by a head in one-mile $250,000 Sleepy Hollow Stakes. With Jose Ortiz aboard, the son of Forty Tales clocked the distance in 1:36.64 and brought his record to a perfect two-for-two.
A similarly nail-biting finish unfolded in the 1 1/16-mile $200,000 Mohawk Stakes on grass, with Christophe Clement’s Gucci Factor—winner of the Poker Stakes (G3) during the spring—rallying tenaciously to edge pacesetting favorite Voodoo Song in a driving finish. Responding to the urging of Joel Rosario, Gucci Factor got his nose across the wire first in the snappy time of 1:39.51, less than a second off the 22-year-old course record (1:38.53).
There was never any doubt about the outcome of the $150,000 Iroquois Stakes, in which Pauseforthecause secured a decisive early lead under Jose Ortiz and widened from there to score by 3 1/2 lengths. Conditioned by Kiaran McLaughlin, the daughter of Giant’s Causeway sprinted 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.62, eclipsing the time posted by Build to Suit in the Hudson.
The stakes action concluded with the one-mile $250,000 Empire Distaff Handicap. Brian Lynch’s Ratajkowski, second choice at 9-5, secured a perfect pace-tracking trip under hot jockey Jose Ortiz and opened up a clear lead in the stretch before holding off a determined late charge from 20-1 shot Our Super Nova to win by a head in 1:35.45.
A five-year-old daughter of Drosselmeyer, Ratajkowski only debuted on May 25, but has since won four of her six starts to emerge as an up-and-coming New York-bred star. Now there’s a perfect way to wrap up Empire Showcase Day!