Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Classic Day Replete with Classic Performances

Vindication comes in many forms: There’s the kind where tough luck is expunged; when an often-criticized methodology proves unjustified, and when the Belmont Stakes, sans Triple Crown drama--even without winners of the first two installments of the world’s most famous three-race series--is still The Belmont.

Bad karma was nipped in the bud Saturday at when Tapwrit atoned for the desperate nose defeat suffered by his come-backing four-year-old stablemate Destin in last year’s Belmont, suffered at the hooves of Creator.

Saturday’s clear-cut perfect trip victory surely must have been worth the additional $800,000 his connections paid for the Tapit colt, as compared to the year-older Giant’s Causeway offspring. And when form holds, so does the importance of a racing classic.

Alongside Jose Ortiz, who engineered a rail skimming ride perfectly behind the fastest horse in the field and worthy favorite, Irish War Cry, his first Classic victory, stood Todd Pletcher, the guy who supposedly is great at winning Classic preps but the races not so much.

Pletcher’s Belmont record hardly could be much better: Three wins and four second from 13 starters, all having one common thread; they ran on Derby weekend, skipped the crab cakes festival, returned to home base and either started or completed seven exactas.

And, once again in the modern era, spacing mattered. Tapwrit was the fourth Belmont winner that ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, before rejoining the caravan five weeks later. That’s five times in the last 10 years.

And so does pedigree, especially when testing champions. Irish War Cry ran a winning race. He did the dirty work, setting the pace with the speedy and wound-up Meanwhile hounding him throughout, but the bottom side of his pedigree got to him inside the final sixteenth of a mile.

Look further up the track and there was Gormley, attempting a winning bid at headstretch that launched him into a clear third midway through the lane but also succumbed in the final furlong to the stoutly bred Patch who, like the runnerup, ran their eyeballs out. An excellent performance by the superfecta performers, indeed.

Clearly, form held. Belmont favorites weren’t able to add to their impressive 42% win ratio, Irish War Cry unable to add to the chalk’s worthy 62-for-148 slate into Saturday.

But inside posts again proved to be advantageous, per usual, as #2 Tapwrit was the 94th horse since 1905 to win from slip 7 inward (Irish War Cry broke sharply from a near mid-pack post 7.

And so Belmont Stakes 149, a good show, concluded this parity-filled season, circumstances dictating separate winners of all three legs, each of whom is expected to be part of the boxed NTRA weekly poll of three-year-olds taken tomorrow; the key horse still anyone’s guess.

It will only serve to make the second season a lot more interesting, especially when uber talent Mastery, and Easy Goer-winning West Coast jumps into the frame for the first time, notwithstanding the return of Classic Empire. The championship season is just getting started.


Especially ‘Money Mike’ Smith, the self-described ‘Big Day Bob’ Baffert, and a filly named Songbird. But, wait, there’s more…

Jose Ortiz had a riding triple, including the Woodford Reserve-Belmont Stakes double returning $415.50; Chris Clement exacting Jaipur revenge with Disco Partner, who missed by a wild-finishing neck in last year’s renewal and, not to be ignored, a new filly turf star from Chad Brown and Juddmonte, Antonoe.

To recall a similarly explosive turn of foot, was forced to recall Royal Academy’s 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile, or Miesque’s two runs in that same event several years earlier, or any of Goldikova’s three straight scores from 2008-10. If you missed it:

Heart-warming to see Jimmy Toner flash his noted turf acumen with Manitoulin in the race after the Belmont, especially in the colors of Darby Dan Farm, something you rarely see on today’s big-event stages--cool, classy silks.

But beyond the “Test of the Champion,” Saturday clearly belong to Smith, Baffert and a great filly.

A five-win stakes day for Smith, four of them while sitting in the Belmont rocking chair waiting to push the button, horses that were locked and loaded by Baffert.

But one mount did require a brilliant tactical maneuver with Kentucky Oaks-winning Abel Tasman, who stole the storied Acorn mile from co-favorite Salty and five other three-year-old fillies, a turn-move swoop up the fence to blow the race open by headstretch.

Baffert’s four winners, if they weren’t there already, are now set for prime time. West Coast showed again that he will act anywhere and belongs in top company (Haskell anyone?) and that American Anthem and Mor Spirit are a little better than I surmised.

At first blush, I was a tad disappointed with Songbird’s return, but that’s the reason racing video was invented. The returning first-time four-year-old, now a nose shy of a perfect baker’s dozen lifetime slate, showed no rust and broke like a shot out of the gate.

But what first was interpreted as dullness, was in fact a schooling lesson from Mike Smith as the competing speed tried to chew on the favorite down the backside. And to everyone watching, Smith notwithstanding, things got more than a bit dicey on the turn.

Javier Castellano aboard Paid Up Subscriber was attempting to do to Smith what Smith did to Joel Rosario, Salty’s partner, only the race before, only Smith had a proven champion beneath him.

Indeed, Paid Up Subscriber put a long neck in front and Songbird was in danger of being defeated, until later when the replay indicated that Smith was educating the “bigger, stronger” four-year-old for the battles ahead, knowing his filly’s class would carry the day.

Soon after straightening away, Smith went to a more vigorous hand drive, but still with a loose rein, and in the end, Paid Up Subscriber ultimately gave way. The takeaway is that the challenger gave a career performance while the champion got a race she needed to build on and while getting the money, too.

Hall of Fame Hollendorfer had his filly fit, but she was not cranked to the extent that she needed to be had her challenger been, say, Stellar Wind in the two-turn Grade 1 Gamely Stakes.


Although total handle for the stakes-laden Belmont Stakes Day card was down 5.8% to $93,666,832, all-sources handle for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival showed an increase 1.6% to $124,740,193.

While attendance of 57,729 was disappointing compared to the 60,114 fans who came out in 2016, a 4% decrease, it was much better than the crowd who showed up to see Palace Malice in 2013--in a non-Triple Crown apples-to-apples comparison—by 10,167.

By contrast, all-sources wagering was up 30% on Thursday year over year, while Friday registered an increase of 35% increase.

Despite the unfortunate but justified of Epicharis, Japanese bettors wagered $4.6 million in a separate pool. While the host track gets a piece of the action, that separate pool total cannot be included in NYRA’s official figures.

Written by John Pricci

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