“I don’t know if you had a chance to look at her, close up, but she really filled out and developed over the winter,” said James Toner, who trains the El Prado filly for Phillips Racing Partnership. “She looks great, she’s doing super, and we’re ready to go.”
“Needless to say it was fun trying to line up a rider, but we got one,” said Toner. “We’re fortunate that we were able to get Eddie Castro. It’s one of those days, I guess, probably one of the few days in the entire year that all the jockeys are gone.”
Winter Memories – who dominated the New York turf as a sophomore with wins in the Grade 2 Lake George, and Grade 2 Sands Point in addition to the Garden City – closed out her 3-year-old campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes at Keeneland on October 15.
With the barn’s star filly on track, Toner is left to prepare the rest of his stable for Belmont’s spring/summer meet. With average daily purses set to increase 44 percent to $620,000 for the 56-day meet that begins Friday and plenty of new faces in town, the trainer said he believes the future is bright for New York racing.
“We’re just trying to get tied on here, said Toner. “I think it’s great for Belmont and good for racing. I have a small outfit, so I wish I had more horses, that’s all. It’s been a long time coming. New York has finally got the money that they’ve waited so long to have, so I think now they should make it to the forefront. The money will be here, and the people will be here. Who knows what Saratoga will be like – that should be standing room only every day – but I think we’ve already started. The best outfits on the East Coast are here, every top trainer in America is here, best horses are here, it should be a great year for racing in New York.”
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Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who has already won the Santa Anita and Oaklawn Park Handicaps with Ron the Greek, sends out To Honor and Serve for his 2012 debut in Saturday’s $150,000 Westchester, with an eye towards Memorial Day’s Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.
“For any stallion, the Met Mile is a very important race,” said Mott, who added the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs would be the next start for Ron the Greek. “I would love to win the race.”
Also in Mott’s barn are 2011’s 3-year-old filly champion Royal Delta and a new acquisition, Flat Out, winner of last year’s Grade 2 Suburban and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Royal Delta, who finished ninth in the Dubai World Cup on March 31, has resumed galloping with no definite plans for her return to the races, said Mott.
“She’s just started up galloping,” said the trainer. “She’s been tack-walking and jogging, and she got to feeling so good I had to start training her. I can’t hardly hold her on the ground.”
Flat Out, said Mott, will not return to the races for several months.
“The earliest he would be ready is the Suburban on July 2,” he said. “That would be the earliest possible, and that might not be giving him enough time. He had a little vacation.”
Flat Out compiled a record of 2-3-1 from eight starts last year, and this year was winless in two starts at Gulfstream Park for former trainer Scooter Dickey, including a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on February 12.
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Grade 3 Withers winner and Grade 1 Resorts World Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial runner-up Alpha continues to school at the gate at Belmont Park in preparation for the May 5 Kentucky Derby.
Ever since Alpha was fractious in the starting gate prior his 11th-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and his team have made a concerted effort to improve the colt’s behavior at the gate.
“He stood in the gate this morning,” noted Artie Magnuson, assistant to McLaughlin. “He was really, really good. We need to keep going. In the afternoon he gets cranked up. Last time [in the Wood Memorial], we didn’t have a man in with him. It was [NYRA starter Roy Williamson’s] idea at the gate. He said, ‘Why don’t we try to leave a guy out, but we’ll watch. If Ramon [Dominguez] wants someone, we’ll grab him.’ Sometimes a colt will get distracted. They’ve done a great job with him.”
Magnuson said Alpha likely will breeze at Belmont on Saturday and will fly to Kentucky on Monday. After arriving at Churchill Downs, the Godolphin Racing representative will receive additional gate schooling.
“We’ll stand him in the gate at Churchill, and do it their way,” said Magnuson. “He’s not that terrible, so we’ll probably stand him and they’ll get to know him, and whatever way they want to do is fine with us.”
Like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Kentucky Derby will be conducted at Churchill Downs in front of a large crowd. Drawing from his experience from ponying Majestic Shore to post for the 1984 Kentucky Derby, Magnuson described the electric atmosphere on Kentucky Derby Day.
“That’s a crazy day,” said Magnuson. “It is so loud. It’s unbelievable. You feel like you’re so small. It’s crazy.”
Magnuson’s sensory overload was understandable, considering it was the first time he had ever ponied a horse to post.
“They asked, ‘Do you want to pony one?’” Magnuson recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ And they said, ‘We need 20 people! Just follow No. 15. Just follow him.’ It was [the eventual winner] Swale. I just followed him. It was wild.”
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Beginning May 12, Belmont Park will offer a $350,000 Guaranteed Late Pick 4 on Saturdays.
The Late Pick 4 requires bettors to select the winners of the final four races on the card. By guaranteeing the wager, NYRA will supplement the net difference if the total pool is less than $350,000.
On Belmont Stakes Day, Saturday, June 9, Belmont will present a $1 Million Guaranteed All Graded Stakes Pick 4 and a $1 Million Guaranteed Pick 6. In addition, on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, there will be a $500,000 Guaranteed All Graded Stakes Pick 4 in conjunction with the running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap.