Although neither race appears at first glance to be an enticing wagering proposition, the sporting appeal of the $500,000 Acorn S. (G1) and $400,000 Woody Stephens S. (G1) at Belmont Park on Saturday is undoubtedly evident.
A handful of three-year-old fillies will line up in the one-mile Acorn, led by reigning champion juvenile filly Echo Zulu. The early 3-5 favorite, Echo Zulu will look to rebound from her first career defeat in last month’s Kentucky Oaks (G1), in which she finished fourth after pressing the pace much of the way.
The last two times Echo Zulu competed around one turn, she was a blowout winner of both the Frizette (G1) and Spinaway (G1).
“I’m very comfortable with her going back to the mile with how brilliant she is,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “She made a good account of herself on some very trying circumstances in the Oaks, but I’m extremely happy about the opportunity to back her up to the one-turn mile at Belmont, where she ran a brilliant race in last year’s Frizette.”
Her main rival will be Matareya, a dynamite winner of the Beaumont (G3) and Eight Belles (G2) in Kentucky this spring for owner-breeder Godolphin and trainer Brad Cox. The only other previous stakes winner in the field is Dream Lith, who upset the Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill Downs last November.
The seven-furlong Woody Stephens for three-year-olds has an even heavier favorite in Jack Christopher, a potential championship contender if he runs to expectations on Saturday.
Installed as the 1-2 morning line choice, Jack Christopher returned from a seven-month layoff in the May 7 Pat Day Mile (G2) at Churchill and walloped a field that included returning rival Pappacap by 3 3/4 lengths. Jack Christopher is undefeated from three starts, his juvenile highlight being a decisive victory in the Champagne (G1).
“I wasn’t looking to cut him back in distance, but that’s what is available right now,” trainer Chad Brown said. “He’s a tough-minded horse and a smart horse. He takes his races and works very well.”
Among his five opponents is Morello, who briefly entered Kentucky Derby (G1) contention when dominating one-turn races at Aqueduct over the winter, including the Gotham (G3). The Classic Empire colt cuts back in distance after a poor start left him lagging near the back much of the way in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G2), in which he was the 19-10 favorite.
Wit was a well-beaten third to Jack Christopher in the Champagne last fall and has been compromised by bad breaks at times, but has proven a useful sprinter to date with victories in the Bay Shore (G3) and Sanford (G3).
“He broke great in the Bay Shore and broke well in his two gate works we’ve had this year, so hopefully he’s got that behind him,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “We just want to make sure he breaks with the field and not compromise his chances like he did a couple of times last year.”