Belmont Stakes highlights stellar card

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Ted Black

June 9th, 2018

While most of the public's attention was focused on the 150th edition of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify went in quest of becoming the 13th horse to sweep the Triple Crown series, serious and novice racing fans alike had to be impressed with the stellar card over the famed New York oval on Saturday.

Of course, heading into the Belmont Stakes the focus of the racing world was on Justify, who arrived with an unblemished record during his rapid ascension to stardom and was seeking to become the Sport's 13th Triple Crown and second in the last four years. Sent out as the 4-5 favorite in the one-mile and one-half test of champions once around the Belmont oval, Justify did not disappoint his backers or racing enthusiasts.

When the gates opened in the Belmont Stakes, Justfy broke alertly and gradually gained command from stablemate Restoring Hope through the first turn and the Baffert tandem strolled through modest splits of 23.1, 48 flat and 1:13.1 through the first three calls. Restoring Hope predictably backed out of it entering the far turn, but Justify appeared to have plenty in reserve as Hofburg, Vino Rosso and Gronkowski launched their late bids.

At the top of the lane, Smith went to work on Justify and the odds-on choice responded as Gronkowski gained ground along the rail and Hofburg continued his bid down the center of the track as Vino Rosso gave way. Justify continued to respond and he held safe the late bids of Gronkowski and Hofburg to score by nearly two lengths in 2:28.18, no threat to the 2:24 Secretariat posted 45 years earlier. Justify has won all six of his starts and banked nearly $4 million and joined 12 others on the immortal list of Triple Crown winners while only the second to do so undefeated.

Two races earlier in the Grade I, $1.2 million Metropolitan Handicap for older horses, a race that for many years was contested on Memorial Day and occasionally served as a prep for the Belmont, Bee Jersey (Ricardo Santana, Jr.) overcame post 10 and serious pressure from Mind Your Biscuits (Joel Rosario) and just outlasted that one following a prolonged duel to score by a neck in 1:33.13 for the one-turn mile, with that pair well clear of their nearest pursuers.

A four-year-old Jersey Town colt trained by Steve Asmussen for owner Charles Fipke, Bee Jersey recorded his fourth straight victory to start the campaign and pushed his seasonal earnings past $925,000. He now owns a 5-3-1 slate and career bankroll just shy of $950,000 by edging Mind Your Biscuits, who had won the Grade I, $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan in his most recent try and sports a 7-9-3 slate and lifetime earnings of nearly $4 million from 22 career outings.

Two races earlier in the Grade II, $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes for three-year-old colts who prefer sprint distances, Maryland-bred Still Having Fun was reserved off wicked early fractions of 21.2 and 43.3 early and then rallied widest of all to overall the leaders in the lane and prevail by two lengths in 1:21.45. A sophomore son of Old Fashioned trained by Tim Keefe, Still Having Fun notched his first graded stakes victory, his third stakes tally overall and he now sports a 4-2-0 slate and over $450,000 banked from eight lifetime tries.

One race earlier in the Grade II, $400,000 Brooklyn Stakes at the Belmont Stakes distance of one-mile and one-half, Hoppertunity (Flavien Prat) rallied from well off the pace to overhaul 9-5 favorite War Story for a two-length score. A seven-year-old Any Given Saturday stallion trained by Baffert, Hoppertunity notched his second win in three starts this year and now boasts a 9-7-5 slate and nearly $4.7 million banked from 32 career outings. War Story had recently finished second as the 3-2 second choice in the Grade II, $1.2 million Charles Town Classic.

Several races earlier in the Grade I, $700,000 Acorn Stakes for three-year-old fillies on the main track, Monomoy Girl (Florent Geroux) bided her time from third through the early stages then swept to command three-wide on the far turn and drew clear in the lane under mild urging to score by two lengths. A sophomore daughter of Tapizar trained by Brad Cox, Monomoy Girl secured her position at the head of the division by remaining perfect in four starts this year and she now boasts seven wins and over $1.5 million banked from eight starts after getting the one-turn mile in 1:34.10

One race earlier on the card, Abel Tasman (Mike Smith) easily lived up to her billing as the even-money choice in the Grade I, $750,000 Ogden Phipps for fillies and mares when she gained command soon after the start while racing well off the rail and drew clear in the lane to a five-length score. A four-year-old daughter of Quality Road trained by Baffert, Abel Tasman rebounded from a dull outing in her seasonal debut to record her seventh win from 13 starts and push her career earnings toward $2.5 million by getting the one-mile and one-sixteenth in 1:40.36.

Then one race earlier in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes for three-year-olds just below the top group right now, Prince Lucky (John Velazquez) grinded his way between horses to edge Mask and Dark Vader to a neck score. A gelded sophomore son of Corinthian trained by Todd Pletcher, Prince Lucky notched his first win in four starts this year and recorded his fourth win in eight career tries. He had been absolutely trounced by Ax Man in the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness Day card, but on Saturday he scored in the Easy Goer in 1:41.41 for the one-mile and one-sixteenth event.

Kudos to NYRA for putting together a stellar 12-race card at Belmont Stakes that was primarily devoid of overnight races. Churchill Downs and Pimlico had opened their respective Kentucky Derby and Preakness Day cards with several early overnight races before getting to the stakes and then offering two more overnight races after the main event. Belmont opted to take the high road and offer 10 stakes sandwiched between two modest overnight events, a much more palatable occasion than those put forward by Churchill Downs and Pimlico in May.