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Belmont Stakes, Epsom Derby, French Derby on tap

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Colonel Liam, shown winning the Tropical Park Derby at Gulfstream Park, is the favorite for Saturday's Grade I Manhattan on the Belmont Park turf. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
Colonel Liam, shown winning the Tropical Park Derby at Gulfstream Park, is the favorite for Saturday's Grade I Manhattan on the Belmont Park turf. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park

June 4 (UPI) -- A bounty of weekend horse racing features a three-day Belmont Stakes festival in New York that oozes class from start to finish, the Epsom Derby and Oaks, the French Derby and a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event in Japan.

The Belmont Stakes won't produce a Triple Crown champion, but it easily could put the favorite, Essential Quality, back on a trajectory to all kinds of year-end glory and honors.

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The U.K. and French classics also provide potential springboards to stardom -- and the chance for some massive upsets as the favorites are relatively untested.

One caution: The weather guessers raise the prospect of some rain and even thunderstorms Friday at Belmont Park before a nice, warm Belmont Stakes day. Hope for firm and fair, but handicap with an eye on the sky.

RELATED Medina Spirit's positive test confirmed as Derby disqualification looms

With graded stakes, Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" events and top competitors on display throughout the weekend, it never hurts to have an expert look at things. That's just what ace analyst Jude Feld provides at popejude.com.

Here's our take:

Classic

RELATED Essential Quality favorite in eight-horse field for Saturday's Belmont Stakes

If Essential Quality is the quality colt he appeared to be in his first five starts -- all wins -- he should have his seven rivals at his mercy in Saturday's $1.5 million Grade I Belmont Stakes.

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Essential Quality, a Tapit colt trained by Brad Cox, cruised through his 2-year-old season, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was crowned the top U.S. 2-year-old male. He suffered his first defeat in the Kentucky Derby, finishing fourth after a rough start.

Essential Quality did not contest the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness stakes at Pimlico. Rombauer pulled off the 11-1 upset in that race and returns to try to prove it wasn't a fluke.

RELATED New York Racing Association suspends trainer Bob Baffert

Others in the field for the 1 1/2-miles Belmont include Rock Your World, the Santa Anita Derby winner who essentially was eliminated at the start in the Derby, and Hot Rod Charlie, third at Churchill Downs, beaten only 1 length.

Meanwhile, the second half of the split sample drawn from Medina Spirit after his first-place finish in the Kentucky Derby confirmed the presence of betamethasone, according to trainer Bob Baffert's attorney.

The finding shifts the process to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which presumably will consider disqualifying Medina Spirit from the Derby victory, setting in motion appeals and potential court action that could drag on for years.

Churchill Downs promptly announced it has suspended Baffert through the conclusion of its 2023 fall meeting. Baffert has suggested the drug entered the colt's system as part of a lotion used to treat a skin problem.

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Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Brooklyn Stakes at Belmont Park is the 1 1/2-miles equivalent for older horses of the Belmont Stakes later on the program.

This one features two from Todd Pletcher's barn, Moretti and Ajaweed, against some good shippers -- Tizamagician from California and Lone Rock, late of Kentucky. Musical Heart also has been running well on the local circuit.

Distaff

Familiar rivals Shedaresthedevil and Swiss Skydiver meet again Saturday in a talent-laden renewal of the $500,000 Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Neither, however, is the favorite in the one-turn, 1 1/16-miles event. That distinction goes to Letruska, a 5-year-old daughter of Super Saver who has won 13 of 18 starts, including Grade I events in both the United States and her first racing venue, Mexico.

She exits a thrilling victory in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, where she prevailed by a nose over the mighty Monomoy Girl with Swiss Skydiver a distant third.

Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Acorn for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park has six, two of them coming from the 1 1/8-miles Kentucky Oaks and three from the Grade II Eight Belles Stakes, run at 7 furlongs on the same day at Churchill Downs.

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The even-money favorite on the morning line is Search Results, who just missed defeating Malathaat in the Oaks. Travel Column was a fading fifth in Louisville but earlier won the Fair Grounds Oaks going 1 1/16 miles.

Obligatory, Dayoutoftheoffice and Make Mischief were the first three finishers in the Eight Belles. The odd filly out is Miss Brazil, who enters off an impressive win at Belmont and can't be ignored.

Sunday's $100,000 Lady's Secret at Monmouth Park has a field of eight, two of them from the Chad Brown string.

Dirt Mile

Four of the six entrants for Saturday's $1 million Grade I Hill 'N' Dale Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile) at Belmont Park come off a graded stakes win but the 6-5 morning-line favorite was last seen finishing fourth.

Okay, that's misleading, as it was the $20 million Saudi Cup in which Knicks Go tired from the lead to finish fourth. Mishriff, one of the world's best horses, won that event at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh.

Before that, Knicks Go, the Korea Racing Authority runner and future stud hope, was an easy winner in both the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.

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The rivals here include Grade I Carter Handicap winner Mischevious Alex, Grade III Westchester winner Dr Post, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap winner Silver State and Grade I Churchill Downs Stakes runner-up Lexitonian. The Met Mile is a "Win and You're In" for November's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar.

Turf

Chad Brown will saddle four of the 10 set for Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park, none of whom would be a surprise in the winner's circle.

Still, the morning-line favorite role in this 1 1/4 feature goes to Colonel Liam, a 4-year-old son of Liam's Map who has reeled off four straight wins, among them them Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf and the Grade I Turf Classic. The latter win came in a dead heat with Domestic Spending, one of the Brown quartet.

How tough is this field? Channel Cat and Gufo, first and second in the Grade I Man o' War in their last race, are 12-1 and 5-1, respectively, on the morning line.

The first thing to look for in a 2-miles race like Friday's $400,000 Grade II Belmont Gold Cup is which of the nine entrants has gone that far in the past. In this case, there's only one -- Conviction Trade, who finished second in the H. Allan Jerkens at Gulfstream Park in December.

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The eye then strays to any international raiders and, again, there's only one -- Baron Samedi, a Harbour Watch 4-year-old trained in Ireland by Joseph Patrick O'Brien. He's had six straight wins in Ireland and had no problem with 1 3/4 miles in his last outing so he's the 8-5 morning-line favorite.

Fans of horses named from the James Bond novels will note Baron Samedi was one of the voodoo-related villains in the book and movie "Live and Let Die."

The Chad Brown barn is so overflowing with turf talent that even his four runners in the Manhattan couldn't tap it out. In fact, Brown not only has three of the 12 entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Monmouth Stakes.

Granted, one of them is cross-entered in this 1 1/8-miles test and the Manhattan. Another of Brown's, Serve the King, winner of half his six starts, is the morning-line favorite.

Filly & Mare Turf

To borrow from Sesame Street, Friday's $750,000 Grade II New York Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont Park could be "brought to you by the letter 'M'," with some of the logical contenders being Magic Attitude, Mean Mary, Micheline, My Sister Nat and Mutamakina.

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But the 1 1/4-mile affair is sufficiently wide open that just about any of the 12 could win and Harvey's Lil Goil is the favorite at 3-1. Irish trainer Joseph Patrick O'Brien brings Thundering Nights, who comes off a really nice runner-up showing behind Broome in a Group 3 event at the Curragh.

Con Lima shifted out for running room early in the stretch drive of Thursday's $200,000 Wonder Again for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park, worked to the lead inside the sixteenth pole and went on to win by 1/2 length over Plum Ali.

The favorite, Gift Lift, finished third. Con Lima, a daughter of Commissioner, ran 1 1/8 miles on the good inner turf circuit in 1:50.84 with Flavien Prat in the irons. Trained by Todd Pletcher, she now has three wins from her last four starts.

"She seems to be better on grass," Pletcher said. "I'm not really sure why. Pedigree wise, it doesn't really jump out at you."

Turf Mile

Aforementioned ace analyst Jude Feld says the $500,000 Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont Park "is often a thriller and one of our favorite races of the year." Saturday's renewal doesn't do anything to dim that reputation, boasting a well-matched field of 12.

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Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby brings two across the pond for the event -- Summer Romance and Althiqa, who finished first and third in the Group 2 Balanchine in Dubai in their last race. East Coast turf maestro Chad Brown has Pocket Square, Blowout, Tamahere and Regal Glory. Hitting the trifecta in this one would be a thriller indeed.

Turf Sprint

Change of Control effected a change of lead in the stretch run of Thursday's $200,000 Grade III Intercontinental for fillies and mares at Belmont Park, surging to the lead inside the eighth pole and drawing off to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Piedi Bianchi held a brief lead and settled for second, 1 1/4 lengths better than Madeline Must. Change of Control, a 5-year-old Fed Biz mare, finished 7 furlongs on good turf in 1:22.07 with Colby Hernandez in the irons. She has two wins, two seconds and two thirds so far this year from six starts.

"This mare has been incredibly special to us," winning trainer Michelle Lovell said. "She tries so hard every time she runs and has been in top form this year."

Bound for Nowhere seems a strange moniker for a horse that's visited France and England during his successful career and could add Del Mar to the list with a victory in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Jackpot Jaipur at Belmont Park.

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The 7-year-old son of The Factor, owned and trained by Wesley Ward, is the favorite for the race, a "Win and You're In" for November's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Del Mar. On form, he's the one to beat but there's lots of other talent in this big field including last year's winner, Oleksandra.

Saturday's $110,000 Mighty Beau Stakes at Churchill Downs has a "you pick 'em" field of 10 going 5 furlongs and should be a great wagering opportunity.

Sunday's $75,000 Desert Code Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita has six takers. Missy P. finished second in the listed Angels Flight Stakes on May 1 in just her second start. Mohawk King makes his second start since arriving from England, where he ran in top company with limited success.

Sprint

Firenze Fire is 6-for-9 at Belmont Park and the 2-1 favorite on the morning line for Friday's $300,000 Grade III True North Stakes at Belmont Park. The 6-year-old son of Poseidon's Warrior won this 6 1/2-furlongs event last year.

Flagstaff completes his cross-continent journey from California after stops at Oaklawn Park, Keeneland and Churchill Downs. The 7-year-old Speightstown gelding won the Grade III Commonwealth and Grade I Churchill Downs in his last two starts. The others have lesser accomplishments.

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Six impressive sprinters are lined up for Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Woody Stephens Stakes for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park, several of them after proving longer distances don't suit.

The top pick is Jackie's Warrior, undefeated at 1 mile or shorter (this is 7 furlongs) and winless going farther. Dream Shake, Drain the Clock and Nova Rags fit the same general description while Caddo River returns from finishing second in the Grade I Arkansas Derby.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Chub Wagon takes a big step up to graded stakes company in Friday's $300,000 Grade III Bed o' Roses at Belmont Park but six wins from six starts is a good enough record to find the Hey Chub filly installed as the 9-5 favorite in a field of eight.

Most of the record was compiled at Parx Racing, but she did win the Skipat Stakes at Pimlico in her last start. Some of the others have been doing okay in much classier company so beware.

Miss Brazil is cross-entered in Sunday's $150,000 Jersey Girl Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park as an option for Saturday's Grade I Acorn. The Jersey Girl also has Australasia, winner of all five of her previous starts including a last-out allowance event at Churchill Downs.

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Juvenile

Six signed on for Friday's $150,000 Tremont at Belmont Park, a 5 1/2-furlongs affair. The most formidable in a questionable field appears to be Little Drama, a Dramady colt trained by Steve Asmussen.

He won by 5 lengths at Belmont Park May 16, earning an 86 Beyer Speed Figure. Overbore, a Speightstown colt from the Wesley Ward barn, also shows promise.

Juvenile Fillies

Happy Soul made her backers plenty happy with a 11 1/2-lengths victory in Thursday's $150,000 Astoria at Belmont Park.

With John Velazquez up, the Runhappy filly was always in command and won in a hand ride, finishing 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:05.69. The Wesley Ward-trained miss sent to the post as the huge favorite and now has two wins from three starts.

"We'll have to step up in class and company next," Ward said. "She'll get back to Keeneland and prepare for the Adirondack at Saratoga." That's a $200,000 Grade II race Aug. 8.

Around the world, around the clock:

England

Aidan O'Brien fields only one runner in Saturday's Group 1 Cazoo Derby at Epsom -- the first time in 17 years the Irish trainer has been represented by only a single runner. That one, though, well could be good enough to preclude the need for more as O'Brien seeks his ninth win in the Classic.

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Bolshoi Ballet, a Galileo colt, enters as the favorite in a field of 12 after an impressive score in the Derrinstown Derby Trial last month and Ryan Moore has the mount.

A last-minute game of musical chairs involving jockeys and horses finds Frankie Dettori aboard the Ed Dunlop-trained John Leeper, a Frankel colt out of Snow Fairy. He exits victory in the Fairway Stakes at Newmarket.

Among the others in the Derby, Mac Swiney was last seen winning the Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas going 4 furlongs shorter than this 1 1/2 miles; Godolphin has three, any of whom would be a mild surprise as winner; and Shadwell's Mohaafeth has won all three 2021 starts by comfortable margins.

In short, if Bolshoi Ballet comes up short, it's anyone's race -- an assessment that could apply equally to Friday's Group 1 Cazoo Oaks.

While the Ballydoyle contingent is short-handed in the Derby, the Irish lads more than make up for it in the Oaks with five of the 14 declared runners. It's always fun when there are lots of Coolmore runners in a race to see which one Moore picks and where other riders fall along the spectrum.

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In the case of the Oaks, Moore selects Santa Barbara, with Frankie Dettori on Snowfall, Seamie Heffernan riding Divinely, Wayne Lordan up on Willow and William Buick aboard La Joconde.

That rider allocation franks the enthusiasm trainer Aidan O'Brien has expressed for Santa Barbara, a Camelot filly, despite the fact she has only two previous starts and finished fourth in the Group 1 Qipco 1000 Guineas a month ago. Should she not progress as expected when tested at 1 1/2 miles Saturday, this race is as wide open as any.

Worth noting: Snowfall is by the late Japanese supersire Deep Impact, out of the Galileo mare Best in the World. She has been on the fringes in top company but won her only previous start this year.

A victory for those bloodlines would be a jackpot payoff for Coolmore's breeding program. Santa Barbara is by Camelot, Willow was sired by American Pharoah, La Joconde is by Frankel and Divinely is the only Galileo offspring among the five.

France

Part of the reason the Coolmore lads are thin on the ground at Epsom is that St Mark's Basilica and Van Gogh remain in the mix for Sunday's Group 1 Qatar Prix du Jockey Club or French Derby at Chantilly.

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Van Gogh, an American Pharoah colt, won the Group 1 Criterium International over the course in his final start as a 2-year-old but could do no better than third in the Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas in preparation for this.

St Mark's Basilica, by Siyouni, was bred in France. He won the Group 1 Darley Dewhurst in his 2020 finale and returned across the Channel to win the Group 1 Emirates Poule d'Essai des Poulains or French 2,000 Guineas, in his only previous start this year.

The provisional field for the Prix du Jockey Club also has a tough pair from the Aga Khan, 2020 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf contender Sealiway and two from the limited barn of up-and-coming young trainer Stephanie Nigge -- Normandy Bridge and Millebosc.

Japan

Sunday's Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo Racecourse, a "Win and You're In" for the FanDuel Breeders' Cup Mile, presents a unique challenge for defending champion Gran Alegria.

Last year, the daughter of Deep Impact defeated the immortal Almond Eye in the Yasuda Kinen with Almond Eye returning on just three weeks' rest after winning the Victoria Mile. This year, Gran Alegria takes on exactly the same task.

Nonetheless, Gran Alegria looks to be the class of this field with four wins from her last five starts, all of them Grade 1 affairs.

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Five others enter with Grade 1 victories to their credit, including 2019 Yasuda Kinen victor Indy Champ. Schnell Meister, the only 3-year-old in the bunch, has won three of four starts and was last seen winning the NHK Mile Cup and gets a 3-kilo allowance.

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