Belmont Gold Cup international scouting report: Baron Samedi
Joseph O’Brien has been a trainer for only five years, but he’s already won the Melbourne Cup (G1) that has eluded father Aidan—and he’s done it twice. Both Rekindling (2017) and Twilight Payment (2020) prevailed over his father’s runners at Flemington, and Baron Samedi could put himself on a similar path in Friday’s Belmont Gold Cup (G2) at Belmont Park.
The two-mile trip is one potential caveat for the 8-5 morning-line favorite. Otherwise, Baron Samedi offers the combination of established form and upside. A perfect 6-for-6 since being gelded, the LECH Racing runner rapidly ascended through the ranks in the second half of 2020. The four-year-old picked up right where he left off in his seasonal reappearance, his first try over as far as 1 3/4 miles.
International shippers have won the last three runnings of the Belmont Gold Cup. Two were proven at the distance, Red Cardinal (2017) and Amade (2019), while Call to Mind (2018) just missed at 1 7/8 miles. Baron Samedi is attempting a slightly bigger stretch-out, a test worth keeping in mind considering his short price.
You wouldn’t necessarily have pegged him as a two-miler on pedigree. A bargain-basement 3,500-guineas weanling at Tattersalls December, the Usk Valley Stud-bred is by Harbour Watch from a female line replete with sprinters and milers.
Harbour Watch, a brilliant unbeaten juvenile, is responsible for multiple Hong Kong Group 1 winner Waikuku, whose wheelhouse is about seven furlongs to one mile, as well as runners with more distance capacity. Pyledriver, winner of Royal Ascot’s King Edward VII S. (G2) and the Great Voltigeur S. (G2) at 1 1/2 miles, was third in last fall’s St Leger S. (G1) just beyond 1 3/4 miles. (Note that Pyledriver runs earlier Friday in the Coronation Cup [G1] at Epsom). Another son of Harbour Watch, Paret, captured the 2020 Tiller S. at Belmont and finished runner-up in the United Nations S. (G1), both at 1 3/8 miles.
Baron Samedi’s dam is an unraced full sister to Dubai stalwart Fityaan, who sprang a 50-1 shocker in the 2016 Meydan Sprint (G3). His second dam, Italian Group 3 scorer Welsh Diva, is herself a full sister to Group 2-winning miler Trans Island. Perhaps Baron Samedi’s broodmare sire, Haafhd, is contributing more stamina than typical in his case. Haafhd appears in a similar capacity in 2016 St Leger runner-up Ventura Storm.
Baron Samedi was unveiled in the same Curragh maiden race as stablemate Thundering Nights, who also runs at Belmont Park Friday in the New York S. (G2). Neither made any impression in 14th and 16th place, respectively. Thundering Nights improved from there, but Baron Samedi continued to be drubbed. Twice beaten by double-digit margins on Dundalk’s Polytrack late in 2019, he was a better fifth in his sophomore debut in a July 25 apprentice handicap at Gowran. Then Baron Samedi was favored for the first time on the step up to 1 1/2 miles in a Tramore handicap, only to flop again in eighth.
Gelded afterward, Baron Samedi made a quick turnaround in a lowly 1 1/4-mile handicap at Cork on Aug. 25. He telegraphed an improved performance by stalking the pace for once, then altered course in the stretch and picked up just in time to nail a tail-swishing, 0-for-16 rival.
Baron Samedi made it a quick-fire double Sept. 4 in another low-rated handicap at Down Royal, where he demolished the field as the 9-4 favorite. Top weight of 143 pounds couldn’t obscure his superiority in the about 1 9/16-mile affair. Despite wandering around in the stretch, he drew 13 lengths clear in hand. Reverting to 1 1/4 miles at Navan six days later, Baron Samedi toted the light weight of 121 pounds in that handicap, and again skipped away to justify 6-4 favoritism.
His next task came in better company, a 1 1/2-mile premier handicap Sept. 14 at Listowel. Apprentice rider Dylan Browne McMonagle’s seven-pound allowance might have been more significant here than in his prior two wins. Baron Samedi had to be driven to get on top, but the 4-1 shot won going away by three-quarters of a length.
O’Brien’s assistant Brendan Powell (a retired trainer himself) told irishracing.com that Baron Samedi had to overcome adversity:
“Dylan said he traveled well but then got knocked badly and was pushed about seven wide in the end. What I love about him is he’s very genuine and he’s actually won with his ears pricked in the end.
“I think he’ll stay any trip and he seems to go on any ground. He’s a horse that keeps improving.”
Group stakes performances
With his Listowel and Cork wins coming on heavy going, Baron Samedi had no fear of tackling those conditions in his stakes debut in the Oct. 25 Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2) at ParisLongchamp. Favored on the class hike, the progressive sophomore rose to the occasion in the about 1 3/8-mile contest.
Jockey Mickael Barzalona made what might have been a key decision to switch him off the fence and into an outside stalking spot. Instead of having to rally inside, Baron Samedi engaged Mare Australis on his outer flank and outdueled him by a head. Unplaced behind them were veterans Nagano Gold and Soft Light—for whatever it’s worth, old rivals of Belmont Gold Cup contender Ziyad.
Barzalona expected the gelding to draw off instead of making it a tight finish, suggesting some immaturity lingers in Baron Samedi's racing brain.
“He traveled very well throughout the race and, when I asked him, he hit the front easily,” Barzalona said, according to Thoroughbred Daily News. “I thought he would open out and go on from there, but he idled a little in front.”
Mare Australis, a less experienced three-year-old, had not raced for four months, and that lack of recency might have told. Improved markedly this season, Mare Australis was a comeback second to Skalleti in the Prix d’Harcourt (G2) before reaching a new high when victorious in the Prix Ganay (G1).
Baron Samedi likewise continued his ascent this spring when returning in the April 25 Vintage Crop (G3) back at Navan. The 1 3/4-mile test marked his first foray into the staying ranks against such stalwarts as better-fancied stablemate Master of Reality and Aidan O'Brien’s odds-on favorite Santiago.
Aside from the distance question, Baron Samedi was racing on good ground. His effectiveness on a quicker surface had been an open question, with all of his prior turf tries on gradations of soft. And he was carrying the joint top weight of 136 pounds, same as Santiago, spotting four to Master of Reality.
Baron Samedi’s odds drifted up to 20-1 by post time. But once again, he prevailed to extend his winning streak to six. Under patient handling by McMonagle, who was riding in his first Group race, Baron Samedi closed from last to wear down Master of Reality. Santiago ran as if in need of the race in fourth. (The loose horse, Sunchart, lost the rider right after the start.)
Powell commented on the gelding’s willing attitude to irishracing.com:
“Even turning in (the stretch) a few lads said ‘you're beat here,’ but he never knows when he's beat. He seems to love a fight and he keeps quickening up…
“That's the quickest (ground) the horse would have run on but he said he seemed to float away on it. He just kept pulling out that bit more and you just don't know when he's going to stop improving. He's filled out this year and he's a bigger horse. He just keeps improving all the time.
“You never know, he could end up going to Australia with the others. If he stays sound, the world is his oyster at the moment over staying trips.”
Belmont Gold Cup prospects
Having outstayed his pedigree already, Baron Samedi could well keep finding over an extra quarter mile at Belmont Park. His ground versatility, and ability to win as a stalker or deep closer, are obvious plusses beyond his fine form. So is his new rider, Hall of Famer John Velazquez.
At the same time, Baron Samedi still has the vibe of a horse who is figuring things out. That hasn’t prevented his winning sequence in European conditions, but the American style of racing could prove a little less forgiving. Although Baron Samedi is an eminently logical winner, it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s overturned by a savvier stayer, especially by European import Ziyad who has the back class.