“I’m not concerned at all about Shackleford,” said Irwin at Tuesday’s Belmont Stakes Media Luncheon at 620 Loft & Garden at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. “Mucho Macho Man is the horse I’m worried about.”
“That’s not the dumbest thing that Barry's ever said, but it’s close,” Romans said.
Irwin also hinted at an unorthodox summer campaign for Animal Kingdom.
“After the Belmont Stakes, the Breeders Cup Classic would be a long-term goal at the end of the year,” he said. “But I have my own idea of how to get there that wouldn't include the Haskell or the Travers.”
To which Romans responded: “I’ll meet Animal Kingdom on any track, at any distance.”
Saturday’s 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes will mark the 22nd time the individual winners of the Derby and the Preakness have met in 143 editions of the “Test of the Champion.” Of the 21 prior rubber matches, Preakness winners have won 10 runnings, while Derby winners have emerged victorious in five.
Most recently, Preakness winner Afleet Alex took the 2005 Belmont, in which Derby winner Giacomo finished seventh. The last Derby winner to triumph in a rubber match was Swale in 1984, when Preakness winner Gate Dancer was sixth.
* * *
Grade 1 Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed wrapped up his serious preparations for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with a solid half-mile work this morning under exercise rider and assistant trainer Dan Blacker.
Coming on to the main track after the renovation break, the dark bay Dynaformer colt jogged the wrong way to the mile pole, stood quietly there for a few moments, then turned and headed down the backside. Blacker asked him to pick up the pace leaving the five-eighths pole, allowed him to establish his rhythm by the half-mile pole and was timed in 50.55 for four furlongs by NYRA clockers, who caught Brilliant Speed’s opening quarter in 25.60 and his gallop-out in 1:03.62.
“It was a nice work,” said Tom Albertrani, who trains Brilliant Speed for Live Oak Plantation. “He did it on his own, too. I asked the rider to ease him off at the five-eighths pole and go a half. He gets over the track fine. I’m happy with the way he’s doing, that’s the main thing.”
The work was Brilliant Speed’s third since his most recent start, a seventh-place finish behind Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby. He returned to the Belmont worktab on May 23, going five furlongs in 1:00.11 and another five furlongs on June 1 in 1:03.11.
“He looks like he’s put on a little weight since the Derby,” said Albertrani. “It was a good race. I liked the way he ran. He didn’t have a dream trip. He got a little pushed back early on, came wide, lost a lot of ground, and only got beat five lengths. He was running at the end, too.”
The Derby marked the first start on conventional dirt since last summer for Brilliant Speed, who made his first two starts on dirt at Belmont and Saratoga Race Course and then ran five times on the turf prior to the Blue Grass. Third twice over a yielding course at Belmont in the fall, Brilliant Speed broke his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs on December 26, then finished second by a nose in the Dania Beach on January 16 and third by a neck in the Hallandale Beach (he was placed second by a disqualification) on February 6, both at Gulfstream Park.
“I’m not going to go by his first two races, he was still green; to me, they were just throw-out races,” said the trainer. “Tim Wilkin from the Albany Times-Union said to me, ‘He was beaten 40 lengths in his first two dirt races’ and I said, ‘Well, he made up 35 of them in the Derby.’ If we can make up another five, we’re in good shape.”
California-based Joel Rosario, first aboard Brilliant Speed for the Blue Grass, will ride on Saturday.
“We were running out of options on who to ride him in the Blue Grass,” said Albertrani. “His agent called me, asking about riding King Congie in the Blue Grass, and I said I was pretty set there, but that my other horse is a nice horse, too. He said ‘That works for me.’ Joel came in rode him and did a nice job.”
* * *
While trainer Graham Motion traveled back to Maryland to attend the middle school graduation of his daughter, assistant David Rock oversaw a quiet day for Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
The morning after working four furlongs in 47.76 seconds under jockey John Velazquez, Animal Kingdom did little more than jog a couple times around a pony track on the Belmont Park backstretch.
“He looks great. He seemed fine today, 100 percent,” Rock said.
The workout Monday, in company with a stablemate, was the best of 32 at the distance, but Motion said it was not designed to sharpen Animal Kingdom’s speed for the 1 1/2 –mile Belmont.
“There was nothing clever about doing a sharp half,” Motion said. “The fact that he was pretty aggressive was because Johnny was on him and it was unusual surroundings. Only Robby Albarado has worked him at Churchill. They know when you put a jockey on them.”
Rock said Animal Kingdom, runner-up to Shackleford in the Preakness, worked in company because “he’s immature and looks around a little bit, and he did that yesterday. He’s not there yet. He’s still a little green.”
Rock said Animal Kingdom always has been a fast work horse, and that there are no tactical concerns about the Belmont, a race in which Shackleford figures to run a far less demanding opening quarter-mile than the sizzling 22.69 seconds he faced in the Preakness.
“We’ll let him run his race,” Rock said. “He goes out and gallops and does his own thing.”
Motion said he and Velazquez were somewhat taken by surprise by how Animal Kingdom broke in the Preakness, dropping 18 lengths off the pace after a half-mile. The son of Leroidesaimaux got away quickly from the gate in the Kentucky Derby and largely steered clear of traffic.
“In the Preakness, we didn’t encourage him to break sharply because he did it the first time (in the Kentucky Derby),” Motion said. “It was only his second time on dirt. The dirt was that much more dramatic at Pimlico. He took most of it on his face. In the Derby, it was on his chest. It caught him by surprise.”
Motion will return to New York and school Animal Kingdom in the starting gate Wednesday morning after the break at 8:45 a.m. The trainer then will attend the draw breakfast on the fourth floor of the clubhouse, which begins at 9:30 a.m.
* * *
Preakness winner Shackleford had a one-mile gallop over Belmont’s main track this morning under exercise rider Fasuntino Agilar with trainer Dale Romans and assistant Tammy Fox looking on from the apron in front of the grandstand.
Afterward, Romans spoke about the pace scenario in the upcoming Belmont Stakes.
“If Harlan’s Hello wants to go to the lead and he can, we’ll set off him and use him for a target,” said Romans. “If he’s not in the race, it looks like we’ll be on the lead. All we’re going to do, is get him in stride, and sit there. Don’t fight him. Either way, don’t be sending, and don’t be taking hold. Just get him relaxed. He can be relaxed and still going fast.”
Last year, the Romans-trained First Dude set the pace in the 1 ½-mile Belmont before being overtaken by Drosselmeyer and Fly Down in the final sixteenth to finish third.
“I think Shackleford’s got a little more turn of foot than First Dude had,” he said. “First Dude was a little more of a grinder. Even though he showed speed in going to the lead, he was more of a grinder. You had to make him do it a lot more than this horse. Shackleford is more responsive when the jockey asks him.”
* * *
Belmont Stakes contender Master of Hounds arrived in New York on Tuesday morning without incident and was put in quarantine at Aqueduct Racetrack. The fifth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby was joined by stablemate Viscount Nelson, who is being pointed toward the Grade 1, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap.
Both horses are owned by John Magnier and trained in Ireland by Aidan O’Brien. They will be released from quarantine on Thursday and move to Belmont Park.
* * *
Prime Cut, third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park on May 14, departed trainer Neil Howard’s Churchill Downs barn just before 11 a.m. this morning for a flight to New York and was to arrive at Belmont Park later in the afternoon.
“He worked Monday [1:01] so he’ll jog 1 ¼ miles Wednesday and then gallop Thursday and Friday,” said Howard, who said he will likely arrive in New York the morning of the Belmont Stakes. “He’ll probably school in the paddock on Thursday.”
It will have been 11 years since Howard, a native New Yorker, saddled a horse in the Belmont Stakes, having finished fourth with Parade Ground in 1998.
“The 1 ½ miles is a tall order, not just for us but for everyone,” said Howard. “Our colt is a very nice colt with a great demeanor. I think one of his strengths is his stamina; the 1 ½ miles could wind up favoring him.”
Howard said he thought the horses to beat were the “obvious” ones.
“Both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford looked magnificent in the Preakness,” he said. “There’s everything to like about them, and I think Nehro is going to be a factor. It’s a tough race from top to bottom.”
* * *
Accompanied by assistant trainer Brendan Walsh, Santiva left Kentucky on a flight headed for New York and was expected to arrive late Tuesday afternoon at Belmont Park.
Trained by Eddie Kenneally for owner Tom Walters, Santiva couldn’t overcome traffic trouble and finished ninth in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 16, but rebounded with a strong fifth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby three weeks later.
“We were pleased with his race in the Derby,” Walters said. “Hopefully, he got a lot out of that race, and we’ll move forward in the Belmont.”
Walters said Santiva, a bay son of Giant’s Causeway, was never under serious consideration for the Preakness, opting instead to wait for the last and longest leg of the Triple Crown.
“Our game plan was always to run in either the Derby or the Preakness, never both, and then the Belmont,” Walters said. “We absolutely think the five weeks we had between the Derby and the Belmont is good spacing. Hopefully, he got a lot out of the Derby from a conditioning standpoint. He’s had some really nice works since then, so we’re hoping he’ll run a good race on Saturday.”
Walters will arrive in New York on Thursday, and said Kenneally was expected on Friday.
* * *
As the attention this week centers on the rubber match between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford in the Belmont, there will be plenty of other horses looking to spring an upset.
One of those horses is Ruler On Ice, owned by George and Lori Hall and trained by Kelly Breen. Last seen running second as the favorite in the $65,000 Federico Tesio at Pimlico Race Course, the gelded son of Roman Ruler is remaining at Breen’s Monmouth Park base until Saturday.
“We have a lot of aspirations for this horse,” Lori Hall said. “He’s still a little immature, and a little crazy. I think [jockey Jose Valdivia Jr.] is probably one of the only jockeys that will ride him.”
Valdivia has been aboard for each of Ruler On Ice’s past four starts, including a February allowance win and a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Sunland Derby on March 27, his only previous graded stakes try.
“He’s a little green, but he has this amazing close,” Hall said. “He might be one to watch here, kind of one that’s not on anyone’s radar screen but might really surprise people.”
The Halls were represented by Pants On Fire in the Derby, and resisted the temptation to bring Ruler On Ice back to Pimlico for the May 21 Preakness.
“He just wasn’t quite ready to get into the Preakness, so we just pointed him to the Belmont,” Hall said. “We think he’s really coming around.”
* * *
Sagamore Farm’s Monzon worked four furlongs in 48.40 seconds on the all-weather surface at the farm Tuesday morning, according to trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Correas IV.
“I think he’s going to run a very good race,” Correas said of his Belmont Stakes contender.
Monzon, by Thunder Gulch, will arrive Saturday morning and stay in trainer Bill Badgett’s barn.
Correas said Monzon’s spring campaign was thrown into turmoil when he sent the gelding to Florida in February to run in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.
Off a tremendous victory in the Count Fleet the prior month at Aqueduct, a race in which he defeated eventual Bay Shore Stakes winner J J’s Lucky Train and Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire, Monzon looked like a horse with a lot of promise.
The Sam F. Davis, however, proved disastrous, with the gelded son of Thunder Gulch completely taken out of his running style during the race, and it led to a long regrouping period that has led to a run Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, Correas said.
Monzon did not race from February 12, the date of the Sam F. Davis, until May 14, when he returned in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont and finished sixth, beaten 7 ¾ lengths by Alternation.
Correas believes he had little chance to win the Peter Pan but said that the race set up Monzon perfectly for the Belmont.
“We couldn’t run 1 ½ miles off that long a layoff. He went into (the Peter Pan) off five works; he was very short,” Correas said. “I’ve watched the Peter Pan about 20 times now. He ran, but he got tired. But he kept galloping. Our expectations were to use that race for this one (the Belmont).”
In retrospect, Correas said he probably should have run in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct a month after the Count Fleet, but he was attempting to get graded earnings for Monzon to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. He also wanted the horse in Florida because the weather was better for training than the cold embracing the famed Sagamore farm in Maryland.
In the Sam F. Davis, Monzon, gelded after his 2-year-old season, raced forwardly, just a couple lengths off the pace, and wide throughout.
“All his races, he’s come from way back – all of them,” Correas said.
“My take on the mile and a half (of the Belmont) is we need speed and a setup. He’s not a champion, but when he has a setup he runs good. I respect Shackleford and Animal Kingdom, but I hope someone goes to the lead, and maybe they’ll fall back.”
Jose Lezcano, who rode Monzon for the first time in the Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 14 at Belmont, retains the mount.
* * *
Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro walked at trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn on Tuesday, the morning after putting in his final work for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
“He came out of the work in very good order,” said Toby Sheets, Asmussen’s New York-based assistant. “We’re very pleased.
Nehro went four furlongs over Belmont Park’s main track in :50.88 on Monday, his third day in New York, having arrived from Churchill Downs on June 3.
“The first time here, you never know what you’re going to get,” Sheets said, “but we are very pleased with how everything went and how he came out of it. He ate up good last night, and we’re just very happy with him.”
Sheets said Nehro will have light gallops the rest of the week leading up to the Belmont. The Mineshaft colt has run second in three consecutive starts, all graded stakes: the Kentucky Derby, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, and the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, beaten a combined three lengths.
* * *
Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team One Racing Stable’s Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe when second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and when sixth in the Grade 1 Preakness, but trainer Kathy Ritvo is hopeful his shoe troubles have come to an end.
Mucho Macho Man now sports Polyflex glue-on shoes, which, according to the product’s website, “is molded from hybrid polyurethane, resulting in a degree of hardness closely resembling the natural composition of the horse’s hoof.”
“He started with nail shoes, then we went to a glue-on regular shoe, now he has a glue-on Polyflex,” said Ritvo. “I think that he’s probably snatching it coming out of the gate, and he’s not supposed to be able to get this one off.”
The difference with Polyflex?
“It’s pretty much molded to his foot, it’s like an extension of his foot,” said Ritvo. “It's like a rubber shoe. It has a lot more give and gives him a lot more balance. He worked super in the shoes.”
Mucho Macho Man completed major preparations for Saturday’s race with a 59.57 five-furlong breeze on Sunday.
* * *
For Mike Repole’s Stay Thirsty, a start in the Belmont Stakes has been a long time coming.
A half-brother to 2005 Belmont Stakes runner-up Andromeda’s Hero and a son of 2006 Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Bernardini, Stay Thirsty made his first start in July of his 2-year-old season, finishing second in a 5 ½-furlong dash at Belmont Park. He broke his maiden one month later going six furlongs at Saratoga Race Course.
“A lot of Classic horses are a lot bigger and have a lot of early problems, which is why you often see them later,” said Jonathan Thomas, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher. “He’s kind of a throwback race horse who able to run early and run well.”
Stay Thirsty has made seven starts to date, winning the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct in March in addition to his maiden score. He enters the Belmont off a 12th in the Kentucky Derby.
“He’s always been a forward, accommodating horse to train,” said Thomas. “One of the main things is how he’s always been a very sound horse. He was easy to get to the races and he has been an easy horse to keep training and running.”
Thomas added that Stay Thirsty came out of his Tuesday gallop in good shape.
* * *
Kharag Stables’ Isn’t He Perfect finished ninth in the Preakness, but trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal is hopeful a return to his home track will lead to an improved performance in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
Every day, Shivmangal feeds his horses a concoction that includes Guinness Extra Stout, brown sugar, and egg whites, which Isn’t He Perfect usually laps up vigorously. The colt’s fondness for the mixture temporarily disappeared when he was stabled at Pimlico prior to the Preakness.
“He wasn’t the same horse,” said Shivmangal. “He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep. It wasn’t perfect at all. He wouldn’t drink it.”
Now back at his home base, Isn’t He Perfect’s appetite has returned with a vengeance.
“Here, you can hear him yelling for it,” said Shivmangal. “It’s home, and he’s really, really feeling well. Being on your home court is better than shipping out to another track. He loves this track. Belmont is similar to Aqueduct, but it’s also bigger than the outer track [at Aqueduct]. He seemed to love the outer track, and he should love the big, sweeping turns. He’s a big horse, so I think this a perfect track for him.”
Shivmangal expressed satisfaction with Isn’t He Perfect’s 1 ½-mile gallop this morning.
“He had two minute licks,” said Shivmangal. “That was all for him today. All he’ll do now is gallop a mile-and-a-half every day. He’s doing fantastic.”
Shivmangal hadn’t decided whether Harlan’s Hello would run in the Belmont Stakes. Entries for the race will be taken tomorrow.
“Harlan’s galloped a mile-and-a-half and was very strong,” said Shivmangal, who owns the colt. “He went a little more slowly than Perfect.”
* * *
Saturday’s Grade 2, $250,000 True North, presented by Emirates Airline, will be without a primary contender in Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz’s Smiling Tiger.
“We decided at the last minute that we’re not coming,” trainer Jeff Bonde said. “It’s just a gut feeling. My horse does better when he has more spacing between races, and that’s why I’m doing it. The ultimate goal is always to be at the Breeders’ Cup in the fall.”
A multiple Grade 1 winner, Smiling Tiger was most recently sixth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 7.
The defection of Smiling Tiger leaves the prospective True North field at seven: Calibrachoa, D’ Funnybone, Irrefutable, Rule by Night, This Ones for Phil, Trappe Shot and Wildcat Brief.