Irish War Cry, ruled out of consideration for the race a month ago, has been installed as the favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the centerpiece of a massive four-day racing extravaganza at Belmont Park.
Even though there is no Triple Crown winner in sight, the New York track put together a program as compelling as any non-Breeders' Cup event in North America, lacking only the Queen arriving in a carriage to rival Royal Ascot.
Songbird is in action. So is Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman. Some tough Europeans invade Long Island to take on American Turf runners. There might even be a peek at some 2018 Kentucky Derby contenders.
Churchill Downs and Santa Anita have lesser but important contributions to the weekend's festivities. And Woodbine provides an international flair with the Woodbine Oaks and the Plate Trial, which points to next month's Queen's Plate.
Speaking of the Queen and/or Royal Ascot, that glittering event is just over the horizon, with the first races on June 20 and plenty of quality international competition.
And looking a little farther down the road, hopefuls for South Africa's greatest race, the Group 1 Vodacom Durban July, have a final audition chance Saturday in the Group 3 Cup Trial at Greyville.
Here's a quick first look, plus a few early results:
Irish War Cry, all but ruled out of the race after a poor showing in the Kentucky Derby, suddenly finds himself the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $1.5 million Grade I Belmont Stakes.
The colt was a disappointing 10th in Louisville and trainer Graham Motion admitted Wednesday he was ready at that point to junk the Triple Crown, "which is what the Derby does to you when you don't run well."
But, Motion said, Derby winner Always Dreaming flamed out in the Preakness, Irish War Cry started training like a dynamo and, "I felt he needed to be here."
Irish War Cry drew post position No. 7 in a 12-horse field for the 1 1/2-miles classic -- one lap around the sweeping Belmont Park main track. Japanese raider Epicharis, who stands to win a $1 million bonus with a victory Saturday, is the second pick on the morning line at 4-1. He has not raced since finishing second by a short head to Thunder Snow in the Group II UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup night and that was his first loss in five starts. As of Friday, however, he was reported wearing a glue-on shoe to protect a sore foot.
Classic Empire, fourth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness, was scratched Wednesday with a foot abscess, leaving Lookin At Lee as the only participant in all three legs of the 2017 Triple Crown. Oddly, Lookin At Lee was second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness. He drew gate No. 6, just inside Irish War Cry, and is the third choice on the morning line at 5-1.
There's a "B Squad" race Saturday at Belmont Park for 3-year-olds and Send It In and Tu Brutus are the early picks for that $400,000 Grade II Brooklyn Invitational, also at 1 1/2 miles. They finished 1-2 in the Grade II Excelsior April 8 and Tu Brutus came back to win an intervening start by 11 lengths. On paper, the other six are overmatched.
Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Plate Trial at Woodbine got six takers including State of Honor, a bay colt by To Honor and Serve, who finished second in both the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade I Florida Derby, then tired from the lead in the Kentucky Derby to finish 19th. He has run well over the Woodbine all-weather surface. King and His Court is the winner of his last three Woodbine starts but has fared much less well south of the border.
Songbird is the main attraction in Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont. It's her first start since Beholder snapped her 11-race winning streak in last November's dramatic Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita. Jockey Mike Smith says he likes what he got when he worked her for the race and she is odds-on choice on the morning line. The race is the anchor leg of a $250,000 guaranteed Pick 3 and Songbird likely will be a "single" on most tickets, making that bet basically a daily double. Any of the six rivals, however, is capable of an upset if the star is rusty. The race also is a Breeders' Cup Challenge event offering a free pass into this year's Breeders' Cup Distaff at Del Mar.
Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman returns going 1 mile in Saturday's $700,000 Grade I Acorn for 3-year-old fillies. The Quality Road filly is the morning-line favorite in a field of eight which also includes Grade II Eight Belles winner Benner Island, Grade III Beaumont winner Sweet Loretta and Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks winner Salty.
Saturday's $100,000 Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park attracted a field of 11 fillies and mares headed by Mo' Green, third in the Grade III Allaire DuPont at Pimlico in her last outing. Lady Fog Horn, Curlish Figure and possibly the upwardly mobile Martini Glass fit the bill here, too. The 9-furlongs event points to the $750,000 Grade I Delaware Handicap July 15.
Sunday's $500,000 (Canadian) Woodbine Oaks has a highly competitive field of 12 going 9 furlongs on the all-weather course. Several are stakes winners, a few come off maiden wins and one enters still a maiden. Stallion Heiress was 3-for-3 on the Fair Grounds turf but faded badly in her last start at Churchill Downs. Mike Smith is in to ride Financial Recovery for trainer Catherine Day Smith.
Pure Sensation and Green Mask are the early picks for Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Jaipur Invitational at Belmont. Green Mask won the Grade III Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day going a furlong shorter than this 6 furlongs. Pure Sensation was fourth in that race after a long layoff but is 2-for-2 at the trip and 2-for-2 over the Belmont Park greensward. Others with claims include California-based Stormy Liberal, Disco Partner and the speedy Loose on the Town, who steps up in class but will ensure a rapid clip.
Already in: Mississippi Delta stalked the pace in Thursday's $250,000 Grade III Intercontinental for fillies and mares at Belmont Park, worked to the lead well inside the sixteenth pole and survived the late run of Conquests Babayaga to win by a head. The pacesetter, Portmagee, finished third and the favorite, Take These Chains, was a non-factor, finishing eighth of 10. Mississippi Delta, a 5-year-old Giant's Causeway mare, ran 7 furlongs on firm turf in 1:20.05, missing the course record by 0.82 seconds. "Last time, she got very soft turf," said winning rider Jose Lezcano. "I know she's a nice filly and she's better than what she showed last time. Today, the grass was perfect for her and she ran her race."
Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Alywow Stakes over the Woodbine all-weather is for 3-year-old fillies.
Filly & Mare Turf
Sea Calisi and Dacita are the morning-line picks for Friday's $500,000 Grade II New York Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont. Dacita won the 10 furlongs over the inner turf last year and went on to win the Grade I Diana at Saratoga. Since then, the 6-year-old Scat Daddy mare has raced twice and been second twice -- by a nose and a head. Sea Calisi, a 5-year-old French-bred mare, was second to Dacita last year and went on to win the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington later in the summer. She comes off a win in last month's Grade II Sheepshead Bay at Belmont. This is a deep field with a lot of potential and some tempting odds, at least on the morning line.
Believe in Bertie will leave from the inside gate in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Old Forester Mint Julep at Churchill Downs, chasing her first graded stakes win. The 4-year-old Langfuhr filly won three consecutive stakes on the turf during Fair Grounds season, then finished second, behind only Roca Rojo, in the Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day. Linda, Donna Bruja and Sky My Sky are among the six rivals in the 1 1/16-miles event.
In the books: New Money Honey, the even-money favorite, led all the way to a 2-lengths victory in Thursday's $200,000 Grade III Wonder Again for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park. Fifty Five and Dream Dancing filled the trifecta slots. New Money Honey, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, finished 9 furlongs on the firm inner turf course in 1:48.01 with Javier Castellano up. "I just enjoyed the ride," Castellano said. She won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf but was sixth in her only previous start this year, the Grade III Appalachian at Keeneland.
The best of the American entrants for Saturday's $1 million Grade I Woodford Reserve Manhattan at Belmont Park have been running against each other for some time now. Beach Patrol, Wake Forest, Divisidero, World Approval and Sadler's Joy pop up frequently in each others' past-performance lines and all are likely to make their presence known in this 1 1/2-miles affair. But they have overseas visitors in the form of Potempkin, a group winner in Germany and Italy; and Time Test, a multiple group winner in England who just missed in his first U.S. race for trainer Chad Brown.
You don't often see them going 2 miles over U.S. tracks so it's no surprise Friday's $400,000 Grade III Belmont Gold Cup Invitational is full of runners with European credentials. The lukewarm morning-line favorite is Red Cardinal, who qualified for this with a victory in the Group 2 Comer Group International Oleander-Rennen at Hoppegarten in Germany in his last outing. Also note the presence of last year's runner-up, Now We Can, owned by Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Sunday's Group 1 Gran Premio de Brazil is Breeders' Cup Challenge race with a berth in the Turf available to the winner.
Roca Rojo, Dickinson and Celestine are the standouts among seven in for Saturday's $700,000 Grade Longines Just a Game for fillies and mares at Belmont. Roca Rojo won the Grade II Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs in her last appearance. Dickinson has won three straight, most recently the Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. Celestine won this last year and most recently won the Grade II Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park. Do not overlook Antonoe, a French import who won her first U.S. start for trainer Chad Brown in April at Keeneland.
Friday's $250,000 Grade II True North Stakes at Belmont has a lot of talent packed into a nine-horse field. The morning-line picks for the 6 furlongs around one sweeping turn are Whitmore, undefeated in five starts since he was set sprinting; dependable 7-year-old Stallwalkin' Dude, and Noholdingback Bear, third in last year's Grade I King's Bishop at Saratoga. Green Gratto, winner of the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct in April, looks the best of the early speed and is 10-1 on the morning line.
American Anthem, at one time a Triple Crown hope for trainer Bob Baffert, has been reinvented as a sprinter and comes from California as the 5-2 favorite for Saturday's $500,000 Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont. He won the Grade III Laz Barrera at Santa Anita, going the same 7 furlongs as this race, in his last start. Among 10 he will face is Wild Shot, winner of the Grade III Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs in his last outing. Long Haul Bay makes his first start since taking the Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct April 8 in just his second career outing. Recruiting Ready has won three straight and Petrov shortens up after flopping in the Arkansas Derby.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Ten fillies and mares signed up for Friday's $250,000 Grade III Bed o' Roses Handicap at Belmont. By the Moon is the solid morning-line favorite after winning the Grade III Vagrancy in her last outing. The 5-year-old Indian Charlie mare has three wins and a second from four tours of the Belmont oval, including a victory in last year's edition of this in which she defeated the reigning Breeders' Cup champ.
It's hard to imagine the favorite for the $1.2 million, Grade I Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile) at Belmont would come out of a race in Texas. But that's how it is for Saturday's renewal of this important fixture as Mor Spirit sits at 5-2 on the morning line after winning the Steve Sexton Mile at Lone Star in his last start. The second pick -- Sharp Azteca -- last raced in Dubai, finishing a close third in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile. The field also includes the second, third and fourth finishers from the Grade II Churchill Downs on Derby Day -- Awesome Slew, Tom's Ready and Solid Wager. It's a tough race, worthy of its status as an entry for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile though the Breeders' Cup Challenge program.
Saturday's $150,000 Easy Goer is 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds on the Belmont main track with a field of 10. It's a wide-open affair with half the field at single-digit odds on the morning line. Nine were nominated to the Triple Crown and the early pick is West Coast, a Bob Baffert charge who was second in the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland two starts back.
Trainer Todd Pletcher saddles four of the eight 2-year-old entered for Friday's $150,000 Tremont at Belmont. Each of the eight has one previous race and each won that initial outing.
Already run: I Still Miss You shot out of the gate and was never headed in Thursday's $150,000 Astoria for 2-year-old fillies at Belmont. The Majestic Warrior filly won by 2 1/4 lengths and is 2-for-2 in her brief career.
The Group 1 Vodacom Durban July looms in just three weeks' time and nine runners hopeful of making that field will go in Saturday's Group 3 Cup Trial. Several of them have shown flashes of ability that would make them competitive on July 1 but each has questions to answer, whether it be class, consistency or stamina. Many will be watching the Justin Snaith-trained Black Arthur, who was seventh in last year's July with traffic issues. Nebula, Crowd Pleaser and Black Arthur's stablemate, Elusive Silva, also are fancied.
News and Notes
We sadly note the passing Wednesday of Holy Bull, a Hall of Famer and both Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old in 1994 despite finishing 12th in that year's Kentucky Derby. Holy Bull was euthanized at Jonabell Farm due to old age. He was 26. The son of Great Above won both the Florida Derby and Blue Grass before his puzzling performance as the heavy favorite at Churchill Downs, then won six straight races, including four Grade I events. He was pulled up early on the backstretch run in the 1995 Donn Handicap -- his last race and the fourth leg of Cigar's record 16 straight wins.