Exercise rider David Nava rode Animal Kingdom onto the main track at 8:45 a.m., just after the renovation break, while Panagot watched through his binoculars. Starting at the chute gap, Animal Kingdom strode into a gallop on the backstretch behind two horses from David Donk’s barn used to help him focus. He went an easy mile.
“He got to wanting to pull himself up at Keeneland,” Panagot said. “He’d see horses want to pull up and he’d want to also. He’s pretty intelligent and sees this is where they stop, and he wants to stop.”
Panagot said Animal Kingdom has not been bothered by the 95-plus degree temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday.
“They might want to drink more water,” he said, “but he’s fine. There’s nothing quirky about him. He’s pretty straightforward.”
On the walking path back to the barn after his gallop, a loose horse jogged by Animal Kingdom, but the Derby winner was unperturbed.
“David said he saw the loose horse and Animal Kingdom did, too,” Panagot said. “They stopped, naturally.”
* * *
Trainer Dale Romans said he anticipated a different pace scenario in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes than the ones that played out in the Kentucky Derby, in which Shackleford led through moderate fractions and finished fourth, and the Preakness, in which he stalked a hot pace and won.
“Going 1 ½ miles is totally different than either of those two races,” said Romans. “I think if he can get a nice, slow, rhythmic pace, it would be perfect. But we don’t want to go too slow. Going 1 ½ miles, fast or slow, they’re going to be getting tired at the end.
“We may have gone too slow in the Derby, because everyone came home so fast and we couldn’t hang on,” he said of that race, in which Shackleford led through an opening half-mile in :48 3/5 and three-quarters in 1:13 2/5. “The Preakness was different [opening half in :46 4/5] and they struggled a little bit at the end, and we had the stamina to finish.”
Romans said he was confident in jockey Jesus Castanon’s ability to negotiate Belmont Park’s unique 1 ½-mile oval despite his lack of experience at the track and not having a mount the day before the race or on the Saturday card.
“He’s 38 years old, it’s not like he’s a kid; he can figure this track out,” said Romans. “He’s ridden here before, as well.”
Castanon, whose first Grade 1 win came with Shackleford’s Preakness victory, last rode at Belmont Park in July 2009, posting a 5-4-2 mark from 40 starts. His most recent stakes start at Belmont was in 2004, when he finished sixth aboard Burning Roma in the Poker.
Shackleford is the morning-line third choice in the Belmont at 9-2, behind Animal Kingdom (2-1) and Derby runner-up Nehro (4-1).
“I think it could have gone either way with all three of them,” said Romans, noting that Shackleford has been overlooked in almost all his races. “He’s not getting the respect he deserves; every race he’s run in he’s been a longshot. And he’s run well in all of them, except the Fountain of Youth. He just seems to be getting better.”
* * *
Cleared from quarantine at Aqueduct Racetrack, Mrs. John Magnier’s Master of Hounds took a van ride to Belmont Park a little after 6 a.m., and arrived full of himself at his temporary home in trainer John Hertler’s barn.
T. J. Comerford, assistant to trainer Aidan O’Brien, sent the world-traveling Belmont Stakes contender out for a steady one-mile canter, which gave the colt his first feel for the Belmont Park main track. With exercise rider Pat Lillis aboard, Master of Hounds galloped easily around, staying close to the rail, with Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap entrant Viscount Nelson slightly behind him, well out in the center of the track.
“He got a bit wound up,” Comerford said of Master of Hounds’ arrival at Belmont. “Mostly, he was too fresh. All we could do there [in quarantine] was walk in the barn.”
Despite the heat, Master of Hounds appeared comfortable, according to Comerford.
“Once he was out on the track, he didn’t sweat at all,” the assistant trainer said. “My lad sweated more than him.”
Back in his stall afterward, Master of Hounds kept his ears pricked and showed a strong interest in the activity around him, letting out several loud whinnies.
A Kentucky-bred by Kingmambo out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, Master of Hounds has the pedigree to excel at the Belmont’s 1 ½-mile distance. He was selected at a very early age by Coolmore/Ballydoyle for international competition.
“We thought he would be well-suited to the American style of racing, but you can never be sure how they will handle the dirt until they try it,” said Coolmore spokesman Richard Henry. “He has a great temperament and has coped extremely well with all the traveling.”
That travel has included a trip to Churchill Downs last fall for a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, a long journey to Dubai for a nose defeat in the Grade 2 UAE Derby in March, and then a closing fifth-place finish May 7 in the Kentucky Derby.
Comerford said jockey Garrett Gomez was very excited about the horse after the Kentucky Derby and figured he would have finished closer than 5 ½ lengths back had there been more distance to run beyond the mile and a quarter.
From Churchill, it was back to Ireland to train over the woodchip training track at Ballydoyle for the Belmont, Henry said.
Comerford said Master of Hounds would gallop on the main track at 6:30 a.m., Friday morning. “That’s the end of it,” he said of the colt’s preparation. “There will be no problem.”
Viscount Nelson, a 4-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway, was selected to join Master of Hounds at Belmont this weekend because “we think he should be suited by the conditions and the style of American racing,” Henry said.
Last year, the colt raced in four straight Group 1 races in Europe, his best finish a third, just a length behind the older, top-class Twice Over in the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park.
In his second start this year as a 4-year-old, Viscount Nelson tracked the leaders and took over in the final furlong to win a listed stakes race by 3 ½ lengths. Both that victory and the placing against Twice Over came at the 1 ¼-mile Manhattan distance.
“He should appreciate firm going,” Henry said. “We know it’s going to be a hot contest but are hopeful that our horse will acquit himself well. We have always thought very highly of him, and as he’s by Giant’s Causeway we were always hopeful that he would improve again this year.”
* * *
Mucho Macho Man, third in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness Stakes, went to the Belmont training track Thursday morning for an easy one-mile clockwise gallop for trainer Kathy Ritvo.
The son of Macho Uno then received a cooling hose bath before settling into his stall with a fan blowing on him for the afternoon.
Ritvo has been changing up Mucho Macho Man’s routine a bit from day to day, with no set galloping schedule.
Owner Dean Reeves showed up at the barn in high spirits the day after saying at the Belmont draw breakfast, “We think we have the best horse in the country.”
“He needs to prove it,” Reeves said. “I don’t know if it’s this week, but he will prove it.”
* * *
Prime Cut galloped 1 5/8 miles this morning at 6:30 a.m. and assistant trainer Rick Giannini was happy with what he saw in the flashy bay colt, a $475,000 purchase at the Keeneland September yearling sales in 2009.
“He did it wonderfully,” said Giannini, who is overseeing Prime Cut’s preparations until trainer Neil Howard’s arrival on Saturday morning. “He covered the ground well, came back good, cooled off great, and, as hot as it was, he didn’t actually drink a lot of water. He’s fit, he’s ready for the race, and we’re happy with that.”
Prime Cut, whose home track is Churchill Downs, has had some experience over the Belmont Park oval with a third-place finish in the Peter Pan on May 14.
“In the Peter Pan he got beat 4 ½ lengths and he was maybe getting a little tired in that race – a deep sandy track can do that,” said Giannini. “But between training over this track before the Peter Pan, running in the Peter Pan, and training here a couple of days before the Belmont, we couldn’t be happier with his acclimation to the track.”
* * *
Brilliant Speed, last-to-first winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass who subsequently finished seventh, beaten 5 ½ lengths in the Derby, jogged around Belmont Park’s oval and schooled in the paddock this morning. The Dynaformer colt will jog and gallop tomorrow morning as trainer Tom Albertrani puts the finishing touches on his Belmont Stakes charge.
The trainer said he’d like to see a fast pace in Saturday’s race.
“That would suit my horse,” said Albertrani. “How far off the pace he is would depend on how quick they go. If they’re going fast, he could be 10 lengths off the pace; if they’re going slow, I’d like to see him closer. It’s up to Joel [Rosario] to figure it out.”
Rosario has had one Belmont Stakes mount, finishing ninth aboard Make Music for Me in 2010.
* * *
In the only equipment change among Belmont Stakes participants, Ruler On Ice will wear blinkers for the first time in the “Test of the Champion.”
The gelded chestnut son of Roman Ruler was second in the 1 1/16-mile Federico Tesio on May 7 and third in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby at 1 1/8 miles on March 27 in his previous two starts, beaten a total of 3 ½ lengths.
“I think he’s just a little green. He hasn’t figured it out entirely,” said Lori Hall, who co-owns Ruler On Ice with her husband, George. “With each race, you can see he’s taking that energy further and we’re trying to get him to focus. He will have blinkers on Saturday, and we think that that’s going to be the one factor that puts it all together for him. His head starts swinging around once he gets ahead of everyone, and he forgets what he was doing. Sometimes, they just need to stay focused, and I think the blinkers are going to help him do that.”
Though they have been to the Kentucky Derby, including this year with Pants On Fire, this will be the first Belmont for the Halls and trainer Kelly Breen.
“He’s just an honest guy,” Hall said of the 42-year-old Breen, a former assistant to trainer Ben Perkins Jr. “He was always there to help answer questions when we were feeling our way around. He’s always been true to the sport, true to the animals and true to the owners.”
Ruler On Ice has been training in blinkers, including a five-furlong breeze from the gate at Monmouth Park in 1:01 on June 4, the fastest of 23 horses at the distance that day.
“He put in a bullet workout, and everything looks good,” Hall said. “As Kelly would say, ‘All systems go.’
“We’re definitely very excited, reading all the articles. It’s going to be a tough race, but probably one of the most exciting Belmonts in the last couple of years. We’re definitely planning on being there, because I think it’s going to be historic.”
* * *
Trainer Steve Asmussen was at Belmont Park for the first time this week on Thursday morning to see Zayat Stables’ Nehro school in the starting gate and gallop over the main track.
“The horse cocks his head a little bit to the left, and that’s him,” said Asmussen, who arrived on a flight in New York from Kentucky via Detroit on Wednesday evening. “The slower you go with him, the more he seems to do it. It’s a hot, humid day, but I think we’re all feeling that.”
Runner-up to Animal Kingdom in the May 7 Kentucky Derby, his fifth start this year, Nehro skipped the Preakness two weeks later to point for the Belmont. He worked six furlongs in company at Churchill Downs in 1:12.20 on May 30, joining Asmussen’s New York string four days later. He had a half-mile breeze in 50.88 here on Monday.
“We feel good about his training since the Derby,” the trainer said. “If anything, his work [May 30 at Churchill Downs] was as good a work as he’s ever put in. We felt going into the Belmont, it was what he needed. He’s acting his usual, easy-to-be-around, professional self here.”
His connections gave serious thought to the Preakness before opting to give Nehro more time heading into the 1 ½-mile Belmont. Six of the last eight Belmont winners have sidestepped the Preakness, including Summer Bird in 2009 and Drosselmeyer in 2010.
“There was a huge temptation. Absolutely,” Asmussen said. “This is the game you want to be in, and this is the level of the game you want to be on. He’s a good horse, and we talked about it considerably. We thought that he’d done a lot, and there’s a lot left for him to do. We like our chances in the Belmont, but we also hope that there’s plenty left in the rest of the year. That’s one thing that’s changed a lot for 3-year-olds. It used to be the Triple Crown and the Travers, but now there’s several other financial destinations out there for a 3-year-old.”
* * *
Belmont Stakes contender Santiva kept his cool on a hot, steamy Thursday morning at Belmont Park, galloping one full lap around the 1 ½-mile track.
“He doesn’t mind the heat,” said Brendan Walsh, assistant to trainer Eddie Kenneally. Walsh has been with Santiva since they arrived in New York on a flight from Churchill Downs on Tuesday.
“He’s a very relaxed horse, anyway, so it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s used to it. In Kentucky, normally it’s hotter even than here. Maybe not this week, but generally it is, so he’s ready for it. He’s doing good.”
Walsh, who both gallops and works Santiva, has been impressed with how the Giant’s Causeway colt has taken to Belmont, which will be his sixth track in eight lifetime starts, having raced over turf and synthetics as well as conventional dirt.
“He’s handling it really, really well, and we’re happy with him,” Walsh said. “I think he’s definitely matured, mentally. He’s lost that baby mentality. Since he came to us, he’s matured a lot and, physically, he’s gotten stronger, too. He’s not a big horse, but he’s definitely getting strong. He filled out a lot in the last six months.”
A closing sixth in the Kentucky Derby, finishing less than two lengths behind eventual Preakness winner Shackleford in fourth, Santiva also had a tour of the paddock after training hours on Thursday. Walsh said Santiva, owned by Tom Walters, will gallop again on Friday and then just walk the morning of the Belmont.
“That’s what he does at home, and we don’t want to change anything this late in the game,” Walsh said. “Everything’s good.”
* * *
Belmont Stakes contender Monzon went out onto the training track at the famed Sagamore Farm in Maryland on Thursday morning and jogged an easy half-mile for trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Correas IV.
“We went early, like 6:15, to the track and jogged him,” Correas said. “That was it, a mile and a half. Tomorrow he’s going to gallop pretty early, and that will be it. He’s feeling good.”
* * *
Queens native Mike Repole has attended the Belmont Stakes, by his estimation, 8-10 times, but things will be different when he sets foot at Belmont Park on Saturday. For the first time, he’ll have a horse in the “Test of the Champion” as Stay Thirsty will carry the flag for Repole Stable in the Belmont Stakes.
“If you could circle one race on the calendar as a kid from Queens, 13 years old, being at the racetrack, going to Aqueduct, going to Belmont, this is the race,” said Repole. “Everybody wants to win the Kentucky Derby, and trust me, I’ll take that trophy one day if I’m lucky enough, but this is the race I want to win, no doubt about it.”
The Belmont Stakes concludes Repole’s rollercoaster ride in the lead up to and through the Triple Crown, which began with Uncle Mo shouldering early favoritism for the Kentucky Derby off his stellar juvenile season. The 2010 2-year-old champion finished third as the odds-on favorite in the Grade 1 Resorts World New York Wood Memorial in April and was scratched on the day before the Kentucky Derby with what has now been diagnosed as cholangiohepatitis.
Stay Thirsty was the sole Repole Stable representative in the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished 12th. The half-brother to 2005 Belmont Stakes runner-up Andromeda’s Hero has never finished outside the top two in New York, finishing second on debut at Belmont last July, breaking his maiden at Saratoga Race Course in August, completing the exacta in the Grade 1 Hopeful in September, and capturing the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct in March.
“If you take him out of New York, he has finished [fifth, seventh, 12th] so he obviously likes New York, and so do I,” said Repole.
* * *
Doodnauth Shivmangal, who will saddle Isn’t He Perfect for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, is hoping for an outpouring of support from his fellow members of the Guyanese community.
Shivmangal, who trained in Guyana before he moved to the United States, will have many relatives in attendance on Saturday.
“We are expecting over 150 people, just our family members,” said Shivmangal. “But in supporters and everybody, we are expecting thousands of people to be here to support Isn’t He Perfect. We have great fans from Guyana and the Caribbean who are here [in New York]. And there are American supporters, too. We think a lot of followers will be here.”
Isn’t He Perfect is owned by Shivmangal’s cousin, D.J. Ramarayan, whose silks are patterned after the Guyanese flag.
“[The Guyanese community is] proud of me being Guyanese and they are proud of the silks we have,” said Shivmangal. “A lot of people really like that.”
* * *
Trainer David Donk pronounced chestnut 5-year-old mare Strike the Bell fit and ready for the Grade 1, $400,000 The Foxwoods Just a Game on Saturday, the ninth race and second leg of the $1 Million Guaranteed All Graded Stakes Pick 4.
While 12-1 on the morning line, Strike the Bell has some strengths on display. She won the Grade 3 Noble Damsel Stakes at Belmont last September with a last-to-first move at the mile distance of the Just a Game. She also retains the services of Eclipse Award-winning jockey Ramon Dominguez, who was aboard in three of her five career victories.
Further, Strike the Bell has won her second start off a layoff the past two times she has taken breaks.
“She’s had one race off the layoff a week ago and was second to Much Rejoicing,” Donk said. “Ramon’s back up on her and suits her well, so it’s good. It’s a great race.”