Driving back to his barn after Animal Kingdom turned in an easy gallop once around the main track at 9 a.m., Motion expressed something bordering on relief.
With one of the most important races in the country in the offing, the mood remained exceedingly relaxed around Motion. As the trainer’s Triple Crown odyssey reaches its climax, he took time to reflect.
“It’s a great experience; it’s just not one you anticipate,” Motion said. “It’s not something you expect to do. I couldn’t anticipate what it would be like to go to the Preakness with the Derby winner. You’re the only one who can win the Triple Crown of all the horses in the country. Even coming here, coming back to do this… it’s great to be a part of it.”
Twice, Motion has run horses in the Belmont Stakes, a sixth-place finish with Chilito in 1998 and an eighth 10 years after that with Icabad Crane. This year, however, is different because he wanted to reach the American classic races with the right horse and he has.
“That was my agenda, to do it with a horse that took you there,” he said. “Even with [2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner] Shared Account, people would think she didn’t belong in the Breeders’ Cup and same with Better Talk Now. Sometimes we take a shot that we think we have.
“It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of fun to do it with a horse like this. It wouldn’t be as much fun with a horse that wasn’t as talented. He’s such a pleasure to be around.”
Motion said the decision to run Animal Kingdom in the Belmont was made without the pressure that the Kentucky Derby winner faces to run in the Preakness.
“We wouldn’t have come if he hadn’t done so well since then.”
* * *
Preakness winner Shackleford galloped around Belmont Park’s 1 ½-mile main oval after the break this morning with owners Bill and Donna Cubbedge and Michael and Kim Lauffer looking on.
It was the owners’ willingness to put up the money to enter the Florida Derby on the heels of Shackleford’s disappointing outing in the Fountain of Youth that led to him being here, said trainer Dale Romans. He noted the colt’s second-place finish gave him enough graded stakes earnings to run in the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished fourth.
“You know, $15,000 isn’t chump change when a horse is coming off a 20-length loss,” said Romans. “If they had been a little hesitant, he probably wouldn’t have run. Training horses is all about the little decisions – there are so many you have to make in a horse’s career.”
* * *
If anyone had asked trainer Steve Asmussen over the winter to pick a Triple Crown horse out of his stable, the name Nehro wouldn’t have come up.
Owned by Ahmed Zayat, Nehro didn’t make his race debut until last December, running fourth to Prime Cut in a six-furlong maiden sprint at Fair Grounds. From there he ran 10th of 11 in a one-mile event at Oaklawn Park in January before winning in a similar spot there four weeks later.
“When he came in, he was a nice horse,” Asmussen said. “We put a little time in him and felt like he would benefit from a little patience. We gave him time off in Kentucky and he came back in, and he has surprised us. He had one gate work over the winter in New Orleans that was impressive before he ever started, and a fairly good race for him first time out for a horse that you didn’t feel had a lot of speed.
“Justin Phillip was in New Orleans for Mr. Zayat, so we sent him up to Oaklawn. He got very tight off the race and didn’t run much, if at all. From that point, you’re further behind than where you want to be but, boy, he’s touched some markers and put himself in a very good position. He’s had three excellent races in a row with three second-place finishes, but we want to get over that hump. It’s time to win one of these.”
A son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, Nehro galloped 1 ½ miles on Friday and Asmussen planned to school him in the paddock during the afternoon card.
“Yesterday, with the heat, we were a little bit concerned, but the cooler weather today allows us the possibility,” he said. “All is good. The weather is way cooler today, a way better feeling day. The water the racetrack got seemed to tighten it up, and I think that was a positive. Hopefully, we’ll just have a good day tomorrow.”
Nehro was second by a neck in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby prior to his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby, where he was 2 ¾ lengths behind Animal Kingdom, and a neck in front of Mucho Macho Man. He is second choice on the morning line at 4-to-1.
“I think one of the things that has allowed him to be in the races that he has is his attitude,” Asmussen said. “He hasn’t been overwhelmed. The stage hasn’t been too big for him. He’s shown up.”
One of the country’s most prolific trainers in terms of wins, starts, and purses earned, the two-time Eclipse Award winner will be saddling a Belmont Stakes horse for just the second time. In 2007, Curlin was beaten a head by Rags to Riches, the first filly victress since 1905.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Curlin this week,” Asmussen said. “I can’t believe it happened, but I watched it. It happened. She ran incredible. They came home in 48 [seconds] going a mile and a half. Some things are just completely out of your hands. The next day, the next week … four years later, and I still can’t believe he got beat. But he did.”
* * *
Mucho Macho Man, third in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness, will be one of three horses to compete in all three legs of the 2011 Triple Crown, joining Animal Kingdom and Shackleford. Along the way, the son of Macho Uno has carried the flag for organ donation, a cause important to his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who in November 2008 was the recipient of a life-saving heart transplant.
“I think the whole thing was supposed to be,” said Ritvo of Mucho Macho Man’s prominent role in the 2011 Triple Crown. “Hopefully it will save somebody. If somebody was on the fence whether they were going to donate a family member’s organs and they saw the Kentucky Derby or Preakness or see the coverage for the Belmont, they might say, ‘Look at what this lady was able to accomplish.’”
Prior to the surgery, Ritvo was suffering from cardiomyopathy, a deterioration of the heart muscle, which took the life of her brother.
“If somebody had signed up who was a match for my brother, he would be here today,” said Ritvo. “It’s very personal. I lived, my brother died, so I’ve seen both ways it goes. I waited for my transplant, with the knowledge of my brother not getting his. It was a very, very long road.”
In addition to the stresses and responsibilities that come with training thoroughbreds, Ritvo must remember to take umpteen vitamins and anti-rejection pills throughout the day.
“It is a lot of work, but once you get it down it’s not that much work,” said Ritvo of her medication routine. “At 7:30 in the morning I take seven pills, and at noon I take 15 vitamins. Monday, Wednesday, Friday I take 16. And at 7:30 at night I take another seven. You just have to make sure you stay on schedule.”
When asked if doctors ever advised her against training horses because of the stresses that come along with the profession, Ritvo responded by saying, “They know I’m pretty tough. I wasn’t a very good patient, but I really take care of myself.”
Mucho Macho Man confirmed his readiness for Saturday’s Belmont with a 1 ½-mile gallop on the training track Friday morning, Ritvo said.
On his second day out of quarantine, Irish import Master of Hounds put in his final preparation for the Belmont Stakes. With exercise rider Pat Lillis aboard, the fifth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby trotted a mile on the main track, walked for a couple of minutes and then cantered a mile. The first half-mile, he ran along in a steady gallop and then gradually accelerated to finish up.
T.J. Comerford, assistant trainer to Aidan O’Brien, said he believed the experience gained running for the first time on dirt in the Kentucky Derby sets Master of Hounds up well for the Belmont.
“I think with the Derby, it was all new to him,” Comerford said, as six portable electric fans in a semi-circle on the shed row blew into the stalls of Master of Hounds and his stablemate, Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap entrant Viscount Nelson. “It was like he had a bit of practice, and you’d like to think he’s up for it now and learned something now.”
Comerford said Master of Hounds could be reasonably close to the pace in the Belmont, although final instructions to rider Garrett Gomez would be made the morning of the race with O’Brien. The son of Kingmambo didn’t race beyond a mile until his seventh career start.
“He has plenty of speed, too,” Comerford said. “It’s where we decide to use it. Aidan trained him for the Derby and the next step was here. Once the jockey (Gomez) got off him [after the Derby] and said he was very pleased and couldn’t wait to ride him the next day, this became the next day. And now it’s tomorrow.”
O’Brien is in deep preparation for racing at Royal Ascot, yet was still considering a flight from Ireland that would get him to Belmont on Saturday morning. Comerford said the boss had been diligently involved in getting Master of Hounds ready.
“I’m on the phone with him three times a day,” he said. “It’s a big thing to get a horse ready for one race from so far away. We’re pleased we’ve got him this far. I don’t think we can get him any better.”
* * *
After Grade 1 Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed jogged and galloped Friday morning, trainer Tom Albertrani said he was expecting a big effort from the Dynaformer colt in tomorrow’s Belmont, one that has been some time in the making.
“He had a big reputation even when he was on the farm [Live Oak Stud],” said Albertrani. “They thought he was one of their better 2-year-olds. When he came to me and started breezing, he looked the part, too. But his first two races weren’t anything like that.”
Brilliant Speed finished fourth in his debut behind eventual Grade 1 Hopeful winner Boys At Tosconova going five furlongs on the main track at Belmont Park, and then finished seventh, beaten 21 lengths, going seven furlongs at Saratoga Race Course behind Curlinello, Joe Vann and Mucho Macho Man.
“In his first race he was maybe a little green; I was more disappointed in his second race because he didn’t move forward,” said the trainer. “I thought maybe we were looking at a grass horse.”
Brilliant Speed then turned in a pair of third-place finishes on the turf before breaking his maiden going 1 1/16 miles on Tampa Bay Downs’ grass course, followed by a second in the Dania Beach and a third (moved up to second via a disqualification) in the Hallandale Beach at Gulfstream Park.
“He didn’t move up dramatically or anything,” said Albertrani. “Then, he won on the Polytrack at Keeneland, and ran decent [seventh, beaten 5 ½ lengths] on the dirt in the Derby. I’m optimistic he’ll run well here at Belmont; he’s been training well over it.”
* * *
On the eve of the Belmont Stakes, there may not be a more relaxed contender than Grade 2 winner Santiva.
Standing for his morning bath after galloping 1 ½ miles over Belmont Park’s main track for the third consecutive day on Friday, the bay son of Giant’s Causeway at times appeared to be asleep on his feet, despite the activity around him.
“That’s just him,” said Brendan Walsh, assistant to Kentucky-based trainer Eddie Kenneally, who was expected to arrive Friday evening. “Sometimes you worry about him. I came in here the other night, and he was panned out in the stall. Yesterday, I kind of left him there while I was doing a few bits and pieces, and after a while I was like, ‘C’mon, buddy. You’ve got to get up,’ because he was out for the count. That’s the way he always is. He’s very laid back.”
Come race time, however, Walsh said that Santiva acts more like his sire, Europe’s champion 3-year-old in 2000 who was beaten a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year and was the leading U.S. sire in 2009 and 2010.
“He was really tough,” Walsh said. “He was a great horse. That one year as a 3-year-old, he just cleaned up. [Santiva] got his toughness from him, definitely, and his heart. That was one thing about Giant’s Causeway, and this fella’s the same. Even when he works, he’s not a spectacular worker, but he grinds it out. I’ve yet to see a horse actually beat him in a work. He’s not one of those that you’ll pull him out and he’ll go three lengths clear. He’ll just do enough.”
Walsh, who both gallops and works Santiva, said there was moisture in the main track from Thursday’s overnight showers, and the horse handled it well.
“It was a bit muddy, a bit sticky, but it was OK. The track here takes plenty of rain, and we did have a lot of rain last night,” Walsh said. “Hopefully, we won’t get any more. I don’t think anybody wants a sloppy track tomorrow. I don’t really know how our horse will handle slop. We haven’t ever really worked him in it or ran him in it. He felt great on it. He’s doing well, as well as I could want.”
Owned by Tom Walters, Santiva will break from post 4 of 12 in the Belmont, and is one of three horses listed at 15-to-1 on the morning line by NYRA oddsmaker Eric Donovan.
“We’re looking forward to it, more than anything,” Walsh said. “There’s no pressure, because expectations aren’t that high. We expect the horse to run well, and we think he’s not here just to make up the numbers. It’s nice when nobody’s really on you.”
In his most recent race, Santiva closed late to be sixth, beaten 5 ½ lengths, in the May 7 Kentucky Derby, following a ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 1 Blue Grass.
“He didn’t have an ideal prep for the Derby, and I think he can improve a little bit from what he ran in there,” Walsh said. “If he can improve a couple of lengths, it’ll put him right there. And, I really do think the horse will stay. I think he’s going to get the trip. I hope I’m not wrong. We’re pretty happy with him now.”
* * *
Prime Cut, who has finished no worse than third in six starts since December, including a third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, galloped 1 3/8 miles on the main track this morning.
“He was the sales-topper in the second book at the Keeneland September yearling sales, so we always had high expectations of him,” said Neil Howard’s assistant, Ricky Giannini, of the Bernstein colt, who fetched $475,000. “He was big, even at 2, and because of that we thought he’d be a late-developing colt.”
After a fourth-place finish going 5 ½ furlongs in his debut a year ago at Churchill Downs, Prime Cut developed a lung infection that kept him out of training for several months. He returned to training in October, and after breaking his maiden at the Fair Grounds on December 12, finished third, second and first in a trio of optional claimers and second by a nose to Derby Kitten in his stakes debut, the Grade 3 Lexington.
“The expectation was that he would be better at age 3 than at 2, and he might be even better at 4 or 5,” said Giannini. “But he’s ready for tomorrow.”
* * *
Trainer Kelly Breen was still finalizing his travel plans for Ruler On Ice for Saturday’s Belmont.
Breen has kept the gelded chestnut son of Roman Ruler at his Monmouth Park base, where Ruler On Ice galloped one mile Friday morning.
“It’s just how we normally run,” Breen said. “We’re not sure what time we’re leaving here yet. He’s doing fine. Everybody’s great.”
Breen said Ruler On Ice has put on some weight since his last race, in which he finished second by two lengths as the favorite to Concealed Identity in the 1 1/16-mile Federico Tesio at Pimlico Race Course on May 7. He will wear blinkers for the first time in the Belmont.
Ruler On Ice raced twice at 2, breaking his maiden at second asking last October to end his 2010 campaign. He has been worse than third once in six lifetime starts, when he was fifth in his debut, and won a 1 1/16-mile allowance in February before finishing third by 1 ½ lengths in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby.
“You hope and dream that you have 2-year-olds that can develop into 3-year-olds. All you can really do is race them,” Breen said. “Some of these Triple Crown races are won by horses that all they’ve ever done is break their maidens. He’s got two wins under his belt. If he can just kind of put his act together, where he doesn’t always stay focused; that’s why we’re putting the blinkers on him. I think he’s as talented a horse as I have, and it’s just a matter of if he’s good enough.”
Breen feels that Ruler On Ice, owned by George and Lori Hall, is a good fit for the Belmont. He is listed at 20-1 on the morning line and will break from post three under regular rider Jose Valdivia Jr.
“I really like the horse. I think he has some ability,” Breen said. “He’s worked against all of our top horses and done quite well, so I think the horse deserves a chance. I don’t know that this is his only shot at a Grade 1, but I thought he deserved a chance and so did the Halls, and that’s why we’re in there.”
* * *
Should Stay Thirsty win on Saturday, the Repole Stable representative would become just the third horse in 38 years to win the Gotham and the Belmont Stakes.
Such a triumph would place Stay Thirsty in a select group as he would join the likes of Secretariat, who won the 1973 Gotham prior to his sweep of the Triple Crown, and Easy Goer, who took the 1989 Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in addition to his Gotham and Belmont scores.
Stay Thirsty galloped 1 ½ miles on the main track on Friday, according to Jonathan Thomas, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher.
“It was standard,” said Thomas. “The horse is doing real well. He’s doing great.”
* * *
Trainer Ignacio Correas continued to express confidence Friday that his 30-1 long shot Monzon would run a big race for Sagamore Farm in the Belmont Stakes. The Thunder Gulch gelding will arrive at around 8 a.m. Saturday morning and await the race in the barn of trainer Billy Badgett.
“He’s going to run a big race,” said Correas, who trained top horses early in his career in his home country of Argentina before moving to the United States. “Sometimes people who have been around a horse know things that only they know. People can handicap only off the paper. Only we can know the horse. He showed some talent early. You had to know how the horse going into the Peter Pan. He needed that race to complete the preparation. We were not looking for a big effort because it takes a lot to recover. That’s why I think he’s sitting on a big one now. He has done almost everything perfect for this race.”
Asked when he knew he had a quality horse, Correas said, “I don’t know if he’s quality, but I knew the first time I ran him he was good. I took him to Colonial Downs — he had never left the farm — and I took him for 5 ½ (furlongs) and he was 80 lengths from the lead and he came flying. I said next time we run a mile, he’ll crush them, and he did. He won by 12 lengths.”
* * *
Kharag Stables’ Isn’t He Perfect, who has breezed just twice since the beginning of April, continued his usual routine, galloping 1 ½ miles on the Belmont main track on Friday.
His trainer, Doodnauth Shivmangal, trained in Guyana earlier in his career and formed his training methodology by combining techniques used in his native country and in the United States. The horseman hopes the system, which emphasizes long, slow gallops over frequent breezes, will pay off in Saturday’s race, the longest leg of the Triple Crown.
“It’s a long race, and you need your horse to stay the distance,” said Shivmangal. “You don’t want a horse who just sprints. It’s one of the longest races we’ll ever see. Your horse has to have some endurance.”
The Belmont Stakes will be Isn’t He Perfect’s second start in the 2011 Triple Crown series, having finished ninth in the Preakness.
* * *
For the first time, NYRA Rewards customers will be able to wager on the Brooklyn-Belmont Double by going to http://www.nyrarewards.com.
The wager requires bettors to select the winner of today’s Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap, presented by Ram, and Saturday’s Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. In addition to http://www.nyrarewards.com, NYRA Rewards customers can also make the wager at Belmont Park or Aqueduct Racetrack or by calling 1-800-THE-NYRA.
NYRA Rewards, New York’s premier phone and Internet wagering program, is open seven days a week, offers customers the convenience of express funding, does not require members to maintain a minimum account balance, and does not charge any wagering transaction fees.