- A roar went up from the crowd when the horses emerged from the gate for the Belmont Stakes. Perhaps it was because I found the question of what the attendance and the atmosphere would be like to be a more compelling storyline than the race itself, but the cheers and applause seemed less for the Belmont itself than an expression of appreciation, and even relief, that the day had turned out so well to that point. The attendance of 61,168 had to be beyond even the most hopeful forecasts by NYRA, and Bill Nader said "I'm thrilled." The crowd built up as the day went on after a scary start – there were wide swatches of untouched real estate in the backyard when we arrived just after the second – and as the series of stakes races leading up to the big race went on, it seemed clear that the attendance would be comparable to that of last year. Perhaps the fans were applauding themselves for helping to assure that the day would be a special one despite all the bad karma of the last three weeks.
Or maybe they were showing their adulation for the sport, which, with a series of dramatic finishes, shone through as brilliantly as the fall-like sunshine, and proved to be as resilient as the Derby champ whose injury had cast such a pall on the game.
There was Afrashad (Smoke Glacken), the second of two winning Godolphin runners (both of which I counseled you to bet against), who, in his first start in two years, blazed to a half of 44.12 seconds, and drew away from his pursuers in a spectacular 1:08.38, just a tick or two slower than the Grade 2 stakes sprint that would ensue.
Then there was the True North, in which Anew (Awesome Again) was equally scintillating in burying the 4-5 favorite Tiger in 1:08.10. This five-year old is a sudden sprint star for Steve Asmussen, who claimed him for $35,000 last fall, and ran him for as little as $25,000 (a NW of 2 lifetime) just three races back in February! He speed-popped the field, toyed with Spanish Chestnut around the turn, and left that one in the dust, visually accelerating away to a five length win with a final quarter of 23.64.
In the Just A Game, Julien Laparoux sat chilly with Gorella, letting Pommes Frites skip out to an 8 length lead as if to just make it exciting. Tom Durkin seemed alarmed as they turned for home, noting that the 3-5 favorite had “a lot to do, and only two furlongs to do it.” With many in the crowd no doubt depending on Gorella as a single in whatever multi-race bet they had going, a hopeful rumble went up when Gorella started her move once straightening out. The roar built steadily as she slowly cut into the lead and erupted as she finally got to the leader in what nonetheless still looked like a measured neck. Trainer Patrick Biancone said, "The jock has very cool nerves, and I could see that when he didn't use the whip, and just hand rode, that he knew he was going to get there." [Daily Racing Form]
Bob Baffert, who did not have a great day, blamed the post position for the defeat of 6-5 favorite Too Much Bling in the G2 Woody Stephens.
"The post [number one] killed us," ....With his style, he doesn't like to be in there. …Songster is a good horse, but he was in a perfect spot there. Put him in [post one] and us on the outside, and I think it's different." [Thoroughbred Times]The fact is that he couldn’t keep up with Fabulous Strike early. But it didn't help that he was pinned on the inside by Prado on the winner Songster (Songandaprayer) for Darley and Tom Albertrani.
Two more races to go until the Belmont, and two more great stretch runs. Bushfire (Louis Quatorze) atoned for her third in the Kentucky Oaks with her second Grade 1 win in three tries when she battled back after being passed at the top of the lane by Hello Liberty. Winning trainer Eddie Kenneally knew that his filly had done somethig special. "Normally, in horse racing, when you get headed at the eighth-pole, you're going to get beat. She is just so game." [Bloodhorse] Both fillies were tired – the final quarter was run in 26.46 seconds – but neither gave in as they held the rest of the field, including the disappointing favorite Adieu, whose trainer Todd Pletcher didn’t have a great day either, easily at bay.
Pletcher also had English Channel in the Manhattan, and so did I. As the race unfolded with he and Cacique (Danehill) “meandering” through the first half in 51.30 and six furlongs in 1:16.66, I never got the feeling that English Channel would prevail. I was already unsettled by the fact that Frankel’s horse was bet down to slight favoritism over English Channel in the last couple of flashes. (Does anyone else pay attention to that stuff?)
Nonetheless, you knew the two were going to sprint home together; what I didn’t figure was that Relaxed Gesture and Grey Swallow would be able to rally from last and second-to-last respectively to miss by a head and a neck in a finish reminiscent of the Dixie Handicap on Preakness day. This was despite the leading duo coming home in 47.44, final quarter 23.65. Perhaps Relaxed Gesture would have won if Desormeaux hadn’t dropped the whip. "It sure looked like I had it.....I just saw the replay, and obviously, I missed the head bob. I was in front before the wire and after it. He handled the yielding turf okay. We just got beat." [Bloodhorse]
So when they were off for the Belmont, I joined in the cheers. For me, it wasn’t really for a Belmont field that was so flawed that a horse who ran 17th in his last race went off as the favorite; but partly to tell the naysayers “hey, look at what a great day we all had” and partly a nod to everybody – human and horse – who had made the day a success. Any fears that the cloud of the Preakness would hang over Belmont day had proven to be unfounded. Whatever will be remembered about the NYRA era should it end next year, the association must be credited (along with the likes of Silver Charm, Real Quite, War Emblem, etc.,) for establishing the race as a major event, regardless of the quality of the race itself. The crowd was a young one, and it shows how low of a priority live attendance must be that there’s no longer any effort to attract repeat visitors through incentives such as admission and parking coupons.
As for the Belmont, I’ll have more to say throughout the week, but Fernando Jara took Jazil (Seeking the Gold) on a route similar to that of Jeremy Rose and Afleet Alex last year, making his big move around the turn and gaining the lead as he came into the stretch. While Afleet Alex came home in 24.50, Jazil took 25.17. That’s not half bad either, and his final time of 2:27 4/5 was faster than Alex’s 2:28 3/5, and, indeed, was quicker, albeit on a track that seemed to play fast all day, than nine out of the last eleven runnings. Bluegrass Cat fought on very gamely, and was severely compromised by being carried wide around the first turn. Sunriver, dead on the board at 6-1, turned in a more than respectable performance rallying for third. Steppenwolfer did his usual thing; you may read excuses again, but I don’t know that I’d bet on him in a quality allowance race at Saratoga.
As usual, the also-rans checked out at the quarter pole, and, with the possible exception of the winner, all of these horses will be happy to learn that they won’t have to run that far again. The top three proved, I think, to be quality thoroughbreds, though certainly not superstars. I don’t think the race did anything to discredit the quality of this crop. Lacking Bernardini, and without highly regarded runners such as Discreet Cat, Corinthian, and Stevie Wonderboy who are currently on the sidelines, this was no better than a second string field anyway, and doesn't necessarily reflect the overall quality of this group of three-year olds. We'll learn more about that down the road (we hope). But although Jazil’s win won’t create the same hype as those of Barbaro or Bernardini, it seems like he acquitted himself well, and he and the two Pletcher horses should be taken seriously wherever they run next (especially perhaps, Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver at distances shorter than a mile and a half.)