"I would say it's a very strong renewal," said Todd Pletcher, who will saddle the triumvirate of Palace Malice, Cross Traffic and Vitoria Olimpica in pursuit of his first training triumph in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. "It's a tall order for everybody in there, really."
Last year, Flat Out became the 10th horse to take consecutive editions of the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, joining Kelso - who won five straight from 1960-64 - Mad Hatter (1921-22), Dark Secret (1933-34), Nashua (1955-56), Shuvee (1970-71), Slew o'Gold (1983-84), Crème Fraiche (1986-87), Skip Away (1996-97) and Curlin (2007-08). Crème Fraiche finished fourth in his bid for a third victory in 1988, while Skip Away was third in his attempt at the hat trick in 1998.
"I think it's great a horse can participate in it three times in a row," said Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who trains Flat Out for Preston Racing. "It's a testament to the horse's durability and class."
It also could be a testament to Flat Out's fondness for Belmont Park, at which he is 5-for-6 in his career. In addition to the Gold Cup wins, Flat Out took the 2011 and 2013 runnings of the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap and the 2013 Grade 3 Westchester and finished third in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap in May.
"He seems to handle the track well, which definitely is part of it," said Mott, who also will saddle Ron the Greek (12-1) in the Gold Cup. "I also think there probably are a lot of factors that go into it, including that he comes into form at that time of year."
Flat Out, who will be ridden by Junior Alvarado, most recently was an erratic but narrow second to Alpha in the Woodward, missing by a head. He comes into the race off four straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure efforts, including a career-best 116 in the Westchester in which he edged Cross Traffic by a head.
As the 3-1 second choice for the 95th running of the Gold Cup, Flat Out will leave from post position 6.
Facing older horses for the first time this year are Orb and Palace Malice, third and fourth, respectively, in the Grade 1 Travers last time out.
Orb, fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, will have his third different rider in as many starts when Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey gives a leg up to Javier Castellano, currently the leading jockey at Belmont Park. The Derby winner arrived at Belmont on Tuesday from the training center in Fair Hill, Md., where he has been stabled since the Travers.
"I think the Travers helped him," said McGaughey of Orb, who is owned by Stuart Janney, III and the Phipps Stable. "I thought he ran a very good race in the Travers and he came out of it very good. His works at Fair Hill have been exactly what we've wanted. I think we've got a fresh horse that's going in the right direction with a good, solid race under his belt."
Orb, 9-2, drew post position 2. Both he and Palace Malice, 4-1 on the morning line under Hall of Famer Mike Smith, will carry 122 pounds, a four-pound concession from the older horses.
"His year started in January at Gulfstream and at the end of September he still seems to be doing great," said Pletcher of Palace Malice, who carries the colors of Dogwood Stable and will leave from post position 7. "If anything, I think he's improved with the time. He's a May foal and he seems to get better and stronger as we go along and seems to thrive on the action and the training in between. I've been very, very pleased with the way he's held up physically and mentally."
Cross Traffic, who earned his first graded stakes win in the Whitney after being nosed out by Sahara Sky in the Grade 1 Met Mile, will be making his first start beyond 1 1/8 miles.
"The thing that's impressed me about all of his races is the way he's galloped out afterward," said Pletcher of Cross Traffic, who will have the services of Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. "At the end of the Westchester and the Met Mile, if you look past the wire he was back in front and still galloped out pretty strongly. That gave us confidence that going a mile and an eighth would be in his scope. We'll have to see about the mile and a quarter, but everything that he's shown us indicates that it shouldn't be a problem."
Completing Pletcher's trio is the 4-year-old Brazilian import Vitoria Olimpica, a three-quarter length winner in his first start on dirt at Saratoga.
"I spoke to the connections and they have a lot of confidence in the horse from his form in South America, and we have confidence in the way that he's trained here and the way he ran in the Alydar, so it's more about taking a shot with a horse that seems to be doing really well," said Pletcher of Vitoria Olimpica, the 20-1 outsider on the morning line from post position 4.
Alpha had things pretty much his own way over a sloppy track in the Woodward, breaking sharply and leading every step en route to the victory, his first since the 2012 Travers.
"We hope to surprise again," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "He loves Saratoga and does well up there, but in that particular race everything worked out perfectly. He did run huge. Obviously, in this race it would be hard to think everything would go perfectly again, but he is doing great and he belongs. Tough, tough race."
Joe Bravo gets the call on Alpha, 8-1 on the morning line from post position 5.
Completing the field is Last Gunfighter, who has won seven of eight starts since being transferred to trainer Chad Brown, including the Grade 3 Iselin on August 18 at Monmouth Park. Prior to that, he was second, beaten 2 ½ lengths, by Flat Out, in the Suburban.
"He seems to be training great," said Brown of Last Gunfighter, 10-1 from post position 3. "It's a tall task, with such a solid field, and he's going to have to come with his best to even be a factor. But it's not out of the question for him to do that. He seems to bring his "A" game every time I run him. This will be his toughest task to date, by far."