A look at how contenders are coming up to 2017 Belmont Stakes

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June 5th, 2017

The 149th Belmont S. (G1) is expected to attract a field of 13 when entries are finalized Wednesday. That large a cast is a logical development given the tumultuous Triple Crown trail, and the absence of Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming and Preakness (G1) upsetter Cloud Computing.

Only two of the dozen competed in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown – champion Classic Empire, the projected favorite after his gallant fourth in the Derby and brutal beat in the Preakness, and Lookin at Lee, the Derby runner-up who was a closing fourth at Pimlico.

Both turned in works over the weekend. Classic Empire (pictured last month) covered a half-mile in :50.00 at Churchill Downs Friday, but perhaps more significantly, Team Casse is delighted with his energy level in his subsequent gallops too. And as assistant trainer Norman Casse pointed out, Classic Empire’s interrupted training over the winter may have been a blessing in disguise, since he’s fresher than most dual classic veterans normally are at this point.

Tepidly ranked at the head of the evolving class at the moment, Classic Empire hopes to consolidate that status. Or if he doesn’t, it sounds like Chief’s Crown all over again – the 1984 champion two-year-old colt who ran well in, but lost, every Triple Crown race in 1985.

The Steve Asmussen-trained Lookin at Lee breezed four spirited furlongs in :48.33 at Belmont Park on Sunday. Although he appeared to shut down on the gallop-out, this was a strong-looking move for a horse who’s not the most enthusiastic worker. His main question mark is whether he’ll get the right pace scenario in a race where forward running styles tend to prosper. Then again, Lookin at Lee has a profile reminiscent of Asmussen’s 2016 Belmont winner, Creator, who also progressed through the Arkansas preps. Unlike Lookin at Lee, who had a charmed trip in the Derby, Creator had a nightmare passage at Churchill.

Five contenders have been freshened since unplaced efforts in the Kentucky Derby, a five-week gap that has been a successful angle in recent years.

I’m glad that trainer Graham Motion reversed course with Irish War Cry and decided to let him try the Belmont after all. Not only did he look like a potential winner turning for home in the Derby, before suddenly emptying in 10th, but he also got a form boost in absentia in the Preakness. Two starts back in the Wood Memorial (G2), Irish War Cry had left Cloud Computing back in third. When Cloud Computing jumped up in Baltimore, the Wood began to rank a little better than in the immediate Derby aftermath.

Irish War Cry gave the right signs in his Saturday breeze at Fair Hill. For a colt with a history of being headstrong a times, it was good to see him sit contentedly on the flank of workmate Ascend, advance upsides, yet remain within himself through six furlongs in 1:14.

Todd Pletcher’s duo of Tapwrit, sixth in the Derby, and Patch, 14th from post 20, are both entitled to do considerably better in the Belmont. Tapwrit has echoes of Destin, last year’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner and Kentucky Derby sixth who was denied by a nose in the Belmont. His resume has been nearly duplicated by Tapwrit, with a notable exception in that Tapwrit added another Derby prep, finishing fifth in the Blue Grass (G2). Patch, on the other hand, may face a stiffer task in light of his inexperience, but his talent, stamina, and all-around admirable attitude can compensate.

Patch’s determination is evident in his Friday work in company with Tapwrit at Belmont. Each clocked an identical 1:01.45 for five furlongs, exercising alongside. While Tapwrit hinted he was traveling the more easily on the outside, Patch responded nicely when his rider began to pump, and he actually edged ahead on the gallop-out. Tapwrit may have lost interest by then – his vibe seemed more like a “whatever” than fatigue. Nevertheless, you’ve got to appreciate Patch’s willingness in a street-fight.

J Boys Echo never gained any traction when 15th in the Derby, but the Dale Romans pupil is plainly better than that, as his Gotham (G3) score attests. As a staying-on type when third in the Withers (G3) and fourth in the Blue Grass, he’ll keep chugging all the way.

In his final tune-up at Churchill on Saturday, J Boys Echo drilled five furlongs in 1:00.00 in company, dusting workmate Reedini. Romans described it as possibly his best work ever.

Trainer John Shirreffs has finally decided to throw Gormley’s hat into the ring, Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman reported Monday afternoon. He had been in no hurry to make a Belmont decision for the Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner who was ninth at Churchill.

Gormley added blinkers for his Saturday move at Santa Anita, and the equipment appeared to agree with him, judging by his fine seven furlongs in 1:26.20. I’m not entirely sure if the Belmont is the race for him, though. If it is, that would be a boon for connections after stablemate Royal Mo’s career-ending injury in the lead-up to the Preakness.

Two contenders joined the Triple Crown series in the Preakness – Senior Investment and Multiplier, who both did their best work late in third and sixth, respectively. Although upwardly mobile sorts, their deep-closing habits may leave them too much to do again.

Multiplier, the Illinois Derby (G3) hero, showed a bit more dash in his half-mile at Keeneland Saturday in :48.60, keeping ahead of workmate War Union. Might that portend he’ll lie a little closer?

Lexington (G3) winner Senior Investment is scheduled to have his last move at Belmont Tuesday. That would mark his second work over the track, following a controlled half in :49.13 May 31.

The four remaining hopefuls are all new to the Triple Crown, or at least our classics.

Japanese shipper Epicharis (pictured) is the most fascinating, partly because of the international mystique but largely on his own merits. His high cruising speed is tailor-made for this race, if he’s good enough, and his near-miss in the UAE Derby (G2) strongly suggests that he is.

UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow’s debacle in the Kentucky Derby shouldn’t be held against Epicharis, who’s an unbeaten pro on the Japanese dirt. Instead, I’d prefer to use an in-form Thunder Snow as a measure of Epicharis. Thunder Snow’s subsequent second in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) to Churchill suffices.

Although Epicharis isn’t breezing until Tuesday, he appears to be in grand order. He cuts quite a figure on the video, and for a horse of his size and substance, he’s a fluent mover.

Twisted Tom, a stablemate of Preakness hero Cloud Computing, was supplemented for $75,000. It would be amazing if trainer Chad Brown can win two-thirds of the Triple Crown with different new shooters, especially with one not originally nominated. Indeed, Twisted Tom hasn’t even tried the usual preps, but went to Laurel to turn the Private Terms/Federico Tesio double.

With class concerns being the overarching question, Twisted Tom at least has a stamina-oriented pedigree on his side. And he matched classy older horse Economic Model, an entirely different type bound for the Met Mile (G1), in their Saturday breeze. The two went toe-to-toe in an equal five-eighths in 1:01.13.

Meantime exits the traditional local stepping stone to the Belmont, the Peter Pan (G3), but he was solidly beaten into second by the exciting Timeline. As a Shackleford half-brother to Acorn (G1) and Test (G1) winner Sweet Reason, Meantime doesn’t offer a compelling pedigree case for improvement over added ground either. The Brian Lynch trainee also looked really on the muscle in his Saturday breeze at Belmont, perhaps too much into the bit through five furlongs in 1:01.66.  

Rounding out the baker’s dozen is Hollywood Handsome from the Dallas Stewart barn. Briefly thought to be headed to the Ohio Derby, the Churchill allowance winner is swinging for the fences. His pedigree isn’t the strongest for the distance, and he must improve on paper, having been fourth behind Girvin and Patch in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and fifth to Multiplier in Illinois. Still, Stewart has a knack for getting a tune out of these types.

Hollywood Handsome polished off his preparations at Churchill Friday, negotiating five panels in 1:00.60.

Classic Empire photo courtesy Churchill/Coady Photography

Epicharis photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese Photography