Grade 1 JOCKEY CLUB GOLD CUP: All the pre-race storylines rightfully concerned themselves with whether the 2013 three year old class was the equal or better than the older handicap division. Even at that, all agreed that Bill Mott had the horse to beat.
"They're Off: You Lose, No Wait, You Win!"
And it was not enough that Ron the Greek won the storied Jockey Club Gold Cup at 21-1. He won it by a pole!
Handicappers might have surmised that when anticipated pacesetter Cross Traffic failed to break and was nowhere near the lead, something strange was about to happen. They would have been right.
The complexion changed in that instead of sitting a perfect trip behind two pacesetters, Palace Malice, who opened the betting as the 7-5 favorite, wound up chasing a sharp, loose-leading Woodward winner Alpha.
Approaching head-stretch, Alpha was beginning to tire and Mike Smith appeared to have a handful of Palace Malice when Jose Lezcano, who returned from an injury to win the Flower Bowl, pushed Ron the Greek through on the inside--the best part of the Belmont oval throughout the fall meet--and the six-year-old exploded to the lead, winning in full stride and by daylight.
Palace Malice was clearly second best, holding a daylight advantage over surface loving Flat Out, also trained by Mott but, like Palace Malice, never looked like a winner in the Elmont straight.
The running time was a very strong 1:59 3/5 for the mile and a quarter.
While the Belmont Stakes winner acquitted himself well, not so the Derby winner. Racing in excellent position behind a strong early pace, Orb offered nothing in the drive. Ron the Greek gave Mott his third JCGC victory and allowed the idle Game On Dude, the #1 ranked horse in America, tighten his hold on the divisional lead.
Is Any Horse Cooler than Little Mike?
G1 JOE HIRSCH TURF CLASSIC The connections of the three-ply Hirsch Invitational favorite entry tried to set things up for two late runners by entering a rabbit in a mile and half turf marathon.
As it turned out, the rabbit won the pace battle but the entry lost the Grade 1 war.
Little Mike, who was expertly ridden by Mike Smith, did not allow ground loss on the first turn, a wide trip thereafter, or stretch challenges of stable-mate favorites Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten to keep him from making amends for what heretofore has been a disappointing season.
All of a sudden, if he can repeat his Hirsch performance at Santa Anita five weeks hence, his season could go from highly disappointing to possibly championship affirming. All of a sudden--at least until the California precincts check in later today--the battle for turf supremacy among America's distance-racing grass runners has become a horse race.
Little Mike certainly will go into Arcadia as somewhat of a sentimental choice. Many voters checked his name on their 2012 Eclipse ballots for his traditionally successful Grade 1 campaign only to see the trophy go to mile specialist Wise Dan. He just might have one coming.
An upset winner of three Grade 1s in 2012, including the all-important Arlington Million and Breeders' Cup Turf, just wasn't enough. And of all his unlikely career scores, his Hirsch just might have been the best. He might not win a Turf Eclipse, but if there was one for Coolest Horse...
Laughing All the Way
Grade 1 FLOWER BOWL: It just might be that the Europeans might ship over and clean our Breeders' Cup turf clocks once again.
But no matter how the Filly & Mare Turf turns out, it might not be enough to deny Laughing--whose 2013 season to date has been perfect--divisional honors.
Leading every step of the way, per usual, the Flower Bowl was her fourth consecutive graded victory, and second Grade 1, in as many starts this year.
Jose Lezcano, 3-for-3 astride the Alan Goldberg trainee, slowed down the pace to a half-mile in :51 and change.
The pace might have been slow but it was contested, the challengers oddly enough being two fillies that both prefer making one late run.
Those fillies faded late as a fresh Laughing opened out the lead and withstood a very late, strong rally from stable-mate Tannery.
In a Zone
G1 VOSBURGH INVITATIONAL: There's just no speed like SoCal speed and Private Zone was all that in this G1 prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
The start was even for all the major contenders but within a matter of strides, Private Zone was in front and being rated by Martin Pedroza.
But in an instant, Strapping Groom surged up inside. The team raced in tandem for a while before Pedroza gave the Doug O'Neill gave the gelded 4-year-old his cue, at which point his speed was superior.
At head-stretch, Johnny Velazquez split the seam with G1 Vanderbilt winner Justin Philip and these two put quite the stretch battle in the final furlong where Private Zone lost the lead but re-surged at the finish to win it.
Velazquez claimed foul alleging stretch interference and indeed Private Zone came out to bump the runner-up right on the line.
But it was Justin Philip who was leaning on his rival inside the final eighth mile before the inside runner showed some heart and battled back, literally and figuratively.
The stewards correctly allowed the result to stand.
The running time for 6 furlongs was 1:08 off a half-mile in 44 and change. The race should set the winner up perfectly for The Sprint at Santa Anita, where Private Zone has three exacta finishes in as many starts.
G2 KELSO HANDICAP: Showing no signs of rust and benefitting from heads-up energetic handling from Edgar Prado to take command in soft fractions, Graydar led throughout to win his first start since winning the New Orleans Handicap on March 30.
The victory improved his career record to five wins in six starts, avenging his only loss, one that came at Belmont Park last fall. Given the style of the win, the big gray seemed to have something in reserve at the wire, the effort setting up a possible run on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
Brujo de Olleros made a menacing move four wide into the stretch and rallied very effectively throughout the stretch run to secure the place over hard-hitting veteran Hymn Book, who raced a bit closer to the early pace in his new blinkers.
Graydar has versatility to go with his brilliance, proving on two occasions her doesn’t need the lead to show his best. The win gave Todd Pletcher his third on the card.
Long Live the Princess
G1 BELDAME: Alas, the Queen didn’t bring her ‘A’ game to the fray. And neither did Mike Smith—and that seems to be a recurring theme with the aging Hall of Famer. He’s just help helping horses that need just that little extra to get the job done.
But Princess of Sylmar has brought nothing but her ‘A’ game in four important Grade 1 dances this year.
The 3-year-old filly, deftly ridden by Javier Castellano for his third win on the card to this point, kept Royal Delta in her sights, moved to challenge leaving headstretch and beat the champion on the square with very little drama involved.
Her fourth win of the season securely nailed down the divisional championship and there’s nothing left to prove in her division, the sky appearing limitless at this point. It was Todd Pletcher’s fifth Beldame title.