Analysis of Belmont main track upgrades Songbird's Phipps, explains Keen Ice's Suburban
by DICK POWELL
The sensational SONGBIRD (Medaglia d’Oro) takes on five opponents in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap (G1) this Saturday at Delaware Park. Assigned 124 pounds under the handicap conditions, she has to concede as much as 13 to 9 pounds to her rivals so it is one of the true “handicap” races being run as a handicap race in America today.
Undefeated in her first 11 career starts, she was nosed out in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) by BEHOLDER (Henny Hughes) in an epic battle and you never know how she will come back. Off for eight months, Songbird returned in the Ogden Phipps (G1) and she was a length winner in what appeared to be slowish time. After running a career-best BRIS speed rating of 107 in the Distaff with her previous three starts all breaking double digits, she was only assigned a 99 for the Phipps win.
Run as the 5TH race early on the Belmont Stakes (G1) card, it looked to be that she struggled but upon further review, her race was much better than it looked. Let me explain.
There are speed figures that can be computed any number of ways. But, big races have their own histories and I like to look back and see how all the stakes races run on the dirt that day compare to their histories.
Songbird’s time of 1:42.34 for 1 1/16 miles on the dirt was the second slowest, by three hundredths of a second, in the last 10 runnings of the Phipps.
The Brooklyn Invitational (G2) was run in 2:31.02 for the 1 1/2 miles on the dirt and it was the fourth slowest of the last 10 runnings.
The Acorn Stakes (G1) was run in 1:35.37 for the one mile on the dirt and it was the third slowest of the last 10 runnings.
The Met Mile (G1) was run in 1:33.71 and it was the fifth slowest of the last 10 runnings.
The Woody Stephens (G2) was run in 1:22.14 and it was the fifth slowest of the last 10 runnings.
And, the Belmont Stakes (G1) was run in 2:30.02 and it was the fifth slowest of the last 10 runnings.
So, Songbird raced over a Belmont Park main track that was on the dull side and not yielding fast times over it. She beat lesser competition and Saturday’s Delaware Handicap has even less competition but the range of weights she has to concede going 10 furlongs will serve as competition.
What helps her is that she did not get an easy win in the Phipps. Let’s say that she raced over a speed-favoring main track in her first race off the layoff, she could have won by five lengths in fast time and you could be fooled into thinking that she was back on her game. Her win in this year’s Phipps should set her up perfectly for Saturday but don’t get dissuaded by the 99 BRIS Speed rating.
Last Saturday was Belmont Park’s Stars and Stripes Festival and the main track presented a big handicapping question. Dirt tracks that are drying out are extremely hard to gauge since they are changing by the hour. Belmont saw a ton of rain on Friday with all the races taken off the turf. Saturday started out with a “Good” main track in the 1ST race then was upgraded to “Fast” by the 3RD race.
What happens many times on these days is that as the day goes on, the track dries out to the point that it actually needs to be watered. As Saturday’s races went on, the main track favored horses coming from off the pace on the outside.
The 6TH race was the Dwyer Stakes (G3) at one mile on the dirt. The betting public could not make up their minds between PRACTICAL JOKE (Into Mischief) and BATTALION RUNNER (Unbridled’s Song) until they tilted to Practical Joke in the last two minutes and made him the 75 to 100 favorite and Battalion Runner 135 to 100. GIUSEPPE THE GREAT (Lookin at Lucky) was third choice at 6 to 1.
Right from the start, Battalion Runner broke like a shot and seized control while racing on the rail. He covered his first quarter mile in 23.12 seconds and 47.15 seconds for the half mile. Giuseppe the Great broke almost too well and was pressing the pace and Joel Rosario was taking his time farther back aboard Practical Joke.
When the field turned for home, the two horses on the inside – Battalion Runner and Giuseppe the Great – began to spin their wheels in the deeper going and Practical Joke blew by them with ease. The outside path benefitted 43 to 1 longshot TALE OF SILENCE (Tale of the Cat) who was a clear second.
With Preakness (G1) winner CLOUD COMPUTING (Maclean’s Music) and undefeated TIMELINE (Hard Spun) already in his barn, trainer Chad Brown has to decide what to do next with Practical Joke. He was a very good fifth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) despite breaking from post 19 and now he wins going one turn. Although Brown sounds inclined to aim for the Haskell (G1) next, the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (King's Bishop) (G1) on the Travers Stakes (G1) undercard might be the best spot for him. Or, wait for the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) a month later.
The Belmont Sprint Championship (G2) was up next and it didn’t matter how the main track was playing, nobody was beating MIND YOUR BISCUITS (Posse). And can we please put to rest the myth of the Dubai “Bounce.” His win in the Golden Shaheen (G1) took nothing out of him and he looks better than ever.
The Suburban Handicap (G2) was the 9TH race, and you knew the speed horses were in trouble on the far turn. Jose Ortiz was already scrubbing aboard MATT KING COAL (Cool Coal Man) and while it looked like 1 to 2 favorite SHAMAN GHOST (Ghostzapper) was sitting perfectly about three lengths behind him, Javier Castellano was already asking him for run and not getting much of a response.
It was anybody’s race in the stretch and here came KEEN ICE (Curlin) down the middle just like he did in the Travers Stakes (G1) two years ago to catch Triple Crown winner AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile). In fact, it was his first win since the 2015 Travers and if he was ever going to get another win, it was going to be last Saturday at Belmont.
The two lucrative turf race attracted fields that would have shown up for half the money. Chad Brown pulled off an Aidan O’Brien-like sweep of the top three placings in the Belmont Oaks (G1) when NEW MONEY HONEY (Medaglia d’Oro) held off SISTERCHARLIE (Myboycharlie) and UNI (More Than Ready). The turf, which was soaked the day before, wound up being listed as “Firm” even though many of the riders never caught on.
Perfect example was the Belmont Derby (G1) when Jose Ortiz, as expected, put Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner OSCAR PERFORMANCE (Kitten’s Joy) on the lead and never looked back. The first six furlongs were run in 1:14.37 and the last two quarters were 22.98 and 22.90 seconds. Good luck trying to make up ground into that.
I thought MAKARIOS (Giant’s Causeway) had a chance at long odds but even though he flew home, he raced 30 feet farther than the winner. The expected early presence of WHITECLIFFSOFDOVER (War Front) never materialized even though it looked like he would be a pacesetter for his stablemate HOMESMAN (War Front). I can’t say that Jose Ortiz stole the race aboard Oscar Performance since it looked more like it was handed to him.
Songbird photo courtesy Melanie Martines (@SkimtheRail)