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Derby winner Rich Strike returns as Belmont hosts weekend of top horse racing

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Rich Strike, ridden by Sonny Leon, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 7. File Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/031e14e42f3adccc19b879cdde70a62a/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Rich Strike, ridden by Sonny Leon, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 7. File Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | License Photo

June 10 (UPI) -- The door is wide open for long shot Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike to prove in Saturday's Grade I Belmont Stakes that his 80-1 Churchill Downs victory wasn't a fluke.

He has a lot going for him. His owner and trainer elected to skip the Preakness Stakes, passing up a potential Triple Crown chance, ensuring that Rich Strike would be rested for the 1 1/2 miles Belmont.

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He won't have to face Epicenter, who dropped out of the series after finishing second in the Derby and Preakness, or Preakness winner Early Voting, also an absentee on Saturday.

He likewise won't be up against Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath, who now sticks to filly races for a while.

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Yet, Rich Strike is not the morning-line favorite for the Belmont.

That role goes to We the People, a Constitution colt who won the Grade III Peter Pan by 10 lengths on a wet track in his last start. Before that, he was seventh, beaten more than 13 lengths, in the Arkansas Derby.

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We the People has been training at Belmont since his Peter Pan victory, and turned in a half-mile work in 47.59 seconds June 4, indicating he has turned a corner since the beatdown in Arkansas.

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"The way he has been acting is what you want to see," trainer Rodolphe Brisset said. "The way he has changed is really good. When you let him breeze and he breezes that good, it's all a good sign."

Second pick on the morning line is Mo Donegal, who finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, but won the Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct before that. Rich Strike is third on the line, followed by Creative Minister, Barber Road and Kentucky Oaks runner-up Nest.

The weather forecast includes a chance of rain Saturday, and Rich Strike's trainer, Eric Reed, said while that's not a problem for the Derby winner, it could help the competition.

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"The only thing that concerns us is the favorite [We the People] seems to like a wet track an awful lot," Reed said. "Our rider said [Rich Strike] loves the mud. We'll take whatever we get."

Skippylongstocking and Golden Glider round out the eight-horse Belmont field.

But there's more -- much more -- than just the Belmont Stakes at stake at Belmont Park during the weekend. A never-ending stream of graded stakes is run over the New York dirt and turf ovals during the weekend, from early tests of this year's 2-year-olds to marathons for older horses on both turf and dirt.

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Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" spots are on the line, as are several undefeated records.

The competition is so deep and widespread that there has never been a better opportunity to check out the perspective of ace commentator Jude Feld at www.popejude.com.

And don't forget that no sooner does the Belmont Park excitement abate than Royal Ascot opens its five-day run on Tuesday next.

Here are the highest of the highlights from the weekend:

Classic / Dirt Mile

The Belmont Stakes is the headliner in the Classic Division, but hardly the only pertinent event.

Flightline got some Eclipse Award votes in the 3-year-old category after winning all three 2021 starts -- all by double-digit lengths and culminating in a tour de force in the Grade I Malibu on Boxing Day at Santa Anita.

He has been idle since that but returns in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Hill 'n' Dale Metropolitan Handicap, the "Met Mile" at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

The Tapit colt's works indicate he's ready. He'll need to be.

Speaker's Corner has won three straight himself including the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct in April. Happy Saver has a case of "second-itis" but could enjoy a short cutback in trip. Aloha West won last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint and got home third in the Grade I Churchill Downs Stakes in his prep for this.

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Only one of the seven entered for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Brooklyn Stakes, also at 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park, has ever attempted that distance.

That's the 2-1 morning-line favorite Lone Rock, who is a specialist with five wins and a second from six starts at the trip. He could face unaccustomed pace pressure from First Constitution.

We await the entries for Sunday's $225,000 Grade III Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

Distaff

Five turned out for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park at 1 1/16 miles, a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff. They're all really good and a victory by any of them would be no big surprise.

Letruska is the morning-line favorite off a win in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. She also won the 2021 Apple Blossom and went on to win the Phipps.

Clairiere, second in the Apple Blossom, is back. Malathaat, winner of seven of her nine starts, takes her place in this nice lineup. Search Results and Bonny South round out the cast.

Echo Zulu, whose undefeated steak ended at five when she finished fourth in the Kentucky Oaks, nonetheless is the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Acorn for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park.

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The Gun Runner filly faces just four rivals and chief among them is Matareya, winner of her last three starts.

Entries for Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita were not available at press time.

Sprint

Jackie's Warrior is a solid favorite on the morning line for Friday's $300,000 Grade II True North Stakes at Belmont Park.

The 4-year-old Maclean's Music colt has won 10 of his 14 starts, including four Grade I victories and exits a commanding win in the Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day in Louisville.

If there's a knock on the speedster, it's that he hasn't handled pace pressure well in big races. But any of the five rivals in this would have to step up to successfully mount and sustain a challenge.

Jack Christopher puts his undefeated record on the line in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Woody Stephens Stakes for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park.

Another from the Chad Brown barn, the Munnings colt has yet to be tested after three easy wins including last year's Grade I Champagne over the track and the Grade II Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

He cuts back to 7 furlongs for this and faces the likes of Grade III Bay Shore winner Wit and Grade III Gotham Stakes winner Morello. Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up, Pappacap, also is set to line up in the six-horse field.

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Filly & Mare Sprint

Only four reported for duty in Friday's $300,000 Grade II Bed o' Roses Stakes at 7 furlongs at Belmont Park. Easy to Bless is easy to dismiss, but the other three should have quite a go of things.

Recent form finds Bella Sofia, winner of five of her seven starts, and Glass Ceiling, winner of her last four, running on or near the lead. Obligatory, winner of her last three races, has been making one run in the stretch. If Glass Ceiling challenges Bella Sofia early, Obligatory could benefit.

Turf

Some of the best of American turf runners will contest Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park, including four trained by the omnipresent Chad Brown -- Rockemperor, L'Imperator, Adhamo and Tribhuvan.

All four, however, have been struggling in recent months and Brown said he's counting on the improved turf conditions of summertime to reverse their fortunes.

Highland Chief and Gufo, first and second, respectively, in the Grade I Man o' War Stakes last month deserve respect, as do 8-year-old Channel Maker and Grade I Turf Classic winner Santin.

Tokyo Gold, who traveled from France last summer to finish second in the Grade I Belmont Derby, is the lone foreigner in the field.

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Friday's $400,000 Grade II Belmont Gold Cup is a 2-mile marathon so it's no surprise the two foreign entries are among the favorites.

Outbox, trained by Archie Watson in England, is the 2-1 pick on the morning line and Loft, trained in Germany, is 4-1. The only North American contender with experience at 2 miles is Abaan, who won his only start at the trip rather handily in December at Gulfstream Park.

Filly & Mare Turf

Chad Brown's name keeps coming up in discussion of the big turf races, and here he is again with three of the seven entries in Friday's $750,000 Grade I New York Stakes at Belmont Park.

And they're the favorites in the 1 1/4-mile event, with Rougir, a Group 1 winner in France last fall and victorious in her first U.S. start May 14, as the 6-5 favorite. Virginia Joy, a German import, rides a two-race win streak and Kentucky-bred Bleecker Street remains undefeated after five starts.

All of those are owned by Peter Brant with Coolmore's Michael Tabor as a co-owner of Rougir.

Speaking of those connections, Speak of the Devil and Regal Glory, both trained by Brown for Brant, are the big favorites among just five entered for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes at 1 mile at Belmont Park.

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Speak of the Devil showed promise as a 3-year-old in France but never quite got over the hump. She won her first U.S. start last month, the Grade II Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs.

Regal Glory, by Animal Kingdom, has won three straight, all graded stakes. Brown also has In Italian, who finished second in the Distaff Turf Mile.

Turf Sprint

Friday's $200,000 Grade III Intercontinental at Belmont Park drew 13 fillies and mares to go 6 furlongs and lacks a solid favorite. Nine of the 13 finished first or second in their last race and one, The Grass Is Blue, makes her turf debut.

It's a bit of a program-stabber, but should offer some good wagering options on a weekend otherwise rife with short fields and heavy favorites.

Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Jaipur Stakes at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint has 13 signed on with Arrest Me Red a lukewarm favorite on the morning line.

The 4-year-old Pioneerof the Nile colt, trained by Wesley Ward, has won four of his last five starts and stays home rather than traveling to Royal Ascot. Also here is Casa Creed, who traveled to Saudi Arabia in February to finish second behind Japanese star filly

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Songline then was a close fifth in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai. Several others have a chance in a 6-furlongs dash where racing luck could play a big role.

Juvenile / Juvenile Fillies

Check back in the Weekend Roundup for the results of the $150,000 Tremont for 2-year-olds and $150,000 Astoria for juvenile fillies, both at Belmont Park.

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