American dominance on Stars & Stripes Day
When Belmont Park first announced the grand remodeling of the Jamaica and Garden City into the lucrative Belmont Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1) respectively, and their switch from fall to July 4 weekend, it was only natural to think that the inevitable European shippers would loom large.
Yet in both years of the new format -- 2014 and 2015 -- American-based sophomores have repelled the international invasion. Last year, it was a much closer-run thing, with Mr Speaker somehow getting up to deny Aidan O'Brien's Adelaide in a Belmont Derby result that grows more baffling with the passage of time. And in the Belmont Oaks, Chad Brown won with the ex-Ballydoyle student Minorette, who had made an early transatlantic barn switch for her Coolmore connections.
But on this July 4 "Stars & Stripes Festival," the American theme was even more unambiguously dominant. While one could argue that was partly because the international challenge wasn't quite as robust as a year ago, it's largely because the home team was just that good.
Lady Eli was in a league of her own in the Belmont Oaks, extending her record to six-for-six with consummate authority. I had wanted her to try the Coronation (Eng-G1) at Royal Ascot for the prestige factor, but watching her flaunt her superiority in a time of 1:59.27 -- over a 1 1/4-mile trip that I imagined might have stretched her -- turned out to be a special moment in itself:
And that performance elicited the money quotes from trainer Chad Brown:
The term 'breathes different air' gets thrown around a lot when someone has a very good horse, and I've been lucky to have some great turf fillies and mares, but this one 'breathes different air' for sure.
Not only the ones I've had in my career, but the best horses I have been around, she's way up there, probably at the top of the list. She certainly has the most devastating turn of foot I've ever worked around.
Brown, let's remember, learned his craft from the late, great Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, so he's been around quite a few champions and serious animals.
Off this evidence, there's not a turf filly in North America who looks capable of beating her. And I don't think that the Euros who'll come for the Breeders' Cup would either, but it's probably more circumspect to reserve judgment on that until the fields actually assemble.
Lady Eli is the culmination of bloodlines developed by the hallowed Runnymede Farm, the Clay family's establishment near Paris, Kentucky. It's always great to see historic nurseries breed contemporary stars, and keep the flame going down the centuries.
But in our right adulation of Lady Eli, we musn't overlook the tremendous effort turned in two races earlier by Belmont Derby romper Force the Pass. Yes, he got the garden trip behind a pokey pace, took up the baton from favored Bolo (who folded abruptly as though something were amiss and got vanned off), and clocked a slower time than Lady Eli in 2:01.16.
The comparison is obscured, however, by the fact that the Belmont Derby featured a much slower pace (six furlongs in a dawdling 1:15.38 versus the 1:11.71 in the Oaks). And Force the Pass quickened in some style, dazzling a final quarter in :22.16:
Trained by Alan Goldberg for owner/breeder Richard Santulli, Force the Pass has yet to finish worse than second in six career starts, and he brought a progressive profile off his last-gasp win in the Penn Mile (G3). But this represented a quantum leap forward for this well-bred son of Speightstown and Social Queen, who has massive upside.
Lady Eli photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography.