Friday’s Grade 1 turf stakes at Belmont Park have attracted all-star fields, including competitors who’ve gone very close in the past two editions of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). In Italian, runner-up in last fall’s edition at Keeneland, leads a select cast of five in the $500,000 Just a Game (G1). War Like Goddess, a near-miss third in 2021 at Del Mar and third versus males in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), adds to a ferociously competitive $600,000 New York (G1).
Just a Game (G1) – Race 4 (2:28 p.m. ET)
Trainer Chad Brown has won the Just a Game five times in the past six years, with the only interruption coming courtesy of the Charlie Appleby-trained Althiqa (2021). His opposition is purely domestic in Friday’s renewal. He has 40% of the field, and significantly the one to beat, In Italian.
In Italian tired to third in the 2022 Just a Game after chasing a speedball, but she’ll be playing the role of dangerous speed this year. The Dubawi mare hit new heights in the second half of last season, dominating the Diana (G1) in course-record time at Saratoga and wiring the First Lady (G1). She nearly led all the way in the Filly & Mare Turf, only to be caught late by Aidan O’Brien’s Tuesday. In Italian resumed in the same vein April 15 with a front-running coup in the Jenny Wiley (G1) back at Keeneland. Drawn on the rail here with Irad Ortiz Jr., she will try to prove uncatchable around the elongated one-turn mile of the Widener course.
The respective second and fourth from last year’s Just a Game, Wakanaka and Speak of the Devil, also renew rivalry. Wakanaka picked up the pieces from the pace collapse, though, and the Bill Mott veteran might find this race shape tougher. Speak of the Devil, the other Brown runner, prefers a touch of give in the ground, and she never factored as the even-money favorite here a year ago.
Perhaps the main threat is Spendarella from the Graham Motion barn. The devastating winner of last summer’s Del Mar Oaks (G1), she was previously second in Royal Ascot’s Coronation (G1). Spendarella returned from a lengthy layoff in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day, and although beaten at odds-on, she was a respectable second. She had defending Distaff Turf Mile champ Speak of the Devil and Wakanaka behind her in third and fourth, and a move forward is anticipated.
Rounding out the small but select field is New Year’s Eve. The Brendan Walsh filly has gone winless since starring in the 2022 Edgewood (G2), but she’s been collecting minor awards, most recently when third in the Modesty (G3) to New York-bound Didia.
New York (G1) – Race 8 (4:41 p.m. ET)
Brown throws a four-horse battalion into the New York, giving him half of the field as he seeks a fifth trophy. McKulick and Shantisara didn’t put their best foot forward at Churchill Downs, where both were unplaced in the Modesty. But they’ve struck top form on the Belmont inner turf in the past.
McKulick scored her signature win in last summer’s Belmont Oaks (G1) at this course and distance, defeating Appleby’s With the Moonlight. Shantisara won the 2021 Jockey Club Oaks en route to her romp in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1). After a setback muddied her four-year-old campaign, Shantisara was back on song in the March 11 Hillsborough (G2).
Brown’s upwardly mobile Marketsegmentation delivered a stalk-and-pounce victory in the Beaugay (G3) on Belmont’s Widener course, and her tactical speed could serve her well in this spot. Stablemate Virginia Joy, a close fourth in last year’s New York, exits a second when trying to defend her title in the Sheepshead Bay (G2).
Virginia Joy can boast of upsetting Mott’s War Like Goddess in the 2022 Flower Bowl (G2), but she stole the race while that 1-5 favorite was enduring a frustrating trip in traffic. War Like Goddess rebounded by demolishing males in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1), and Mott preferred to stay at that 1 1/2-mile distance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf rather than shortening up for the 1 3/16-mile Filly & Mare Turf. A creditable third behind Godolphin’s Rebel’s Romance in the Turf, War Like Goddess kicked off 2023 with a three-peat in the Bewitch (G3) over the same Keeneland circuit.
Now Mott gives her an opportunity over 1 1/4 miles, the distance of this year’s Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita. If War Like Goddess can deploy her dazzling late kick in these conditions, she might pinpoint her Breeders’ Cup target.
Yet the New York isn’t just a War Like Goddess-versus-Brown affair. The other three entrants all have claims themselves – Argentine champion Didia, Godolphin shipper With the Moonlight, and Irish import Flirting Bridge.
Didia was comfortably best in the Modesty to go 4-for-4 stateside for Ignacio Correas. She upstaged McKulick and Shantisara that day, and they’ll need the venue change to turn the tables. The extra furlong is right in Didia’s wheelhouse, since both of her Argentine Group 1 laurels came at about 1 1/4 miles.
With the Moonlight had the option of the Just a Game, but after her second to In Italian in the Jenny Wiley, Appleby wanted no part of a rematch at a mile. This spot fits, since With the Moonlight impressed in the 2022 Pretty Polly S. going this trip at Newmarket. Yet Appleby is also keen on advancing to the Diana, the scene of her victory in the Saratoga Oaks (G3). The New York could serve more as a means to that end. On the plus side, With the Moonlight would enjoy a quicker surface at Belmont, unlike her latest in the Dahlia (G2) at a soft Newmarket.
Flirting Bridge has the most to prove, considering that she is still in search of her first stakes win. But her stakes-placed form puts her in the mix. Group 3-placed in Ireland to future French classic winner Joan of Arc, Flirting Bridge has been knocking on the door since joining Walsh. The daughter of Camelot just missed in the E.P. Taylor (G1) in her 2022 finale, and her smart Keeneland allowance comeback could be a springboard to bigger things.