Bitumen, Classic Empire square off in Hopeful

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

September 2nd, 2016

The curtain comes down at Saratoga on Labor Day, but the play’s just beginning for a cast of seven promising juveniles entered in Monday’s 112th running of the $350,000 Hopeful (G1).

Protagonists include Sanford (G3) victor Bitumen (pictured), Bashford Manor (G3) hero Classic Empire, and New York-bred stakes romper Runaway Lute, while Saratoga maiden winners Practical Joke and Royal Copy aim to be more than supporting actors. Everybodyluvsrudy and Pretty Boy Flash might be regarded as extras, since they’ve yet to break their maidens.

Bitumen, a 6 3/4-length debut winner on the engine at Churchill Downs, had to rally from off the pace after a bumpy start in the Sanford. But the Eddie Kenneally trainee handled the transition with aplomb, driving to a convincing win as the 4-5 favorite at the Spa. By Mineshaft and out of a half-sister to Quality Road, Bitumen is bred to prosper as the distances increase, and should benefit on the step up to seven furlongs in the Hopeful. He polished off his preparations with a bullet half-mile in :48.65 over the track Monday. Javier Castellano renews their partnership.

Fellow unbeaten Classic Empire is likewise a product of Churchill’s spring meet, and is also bred for a route. Trainer Mark Casse’s son and assistant, Norman, created immediate headlines by mentioning him in the same breath as another son of Pioneerof the Nile –Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. Classic Empire has a similarly equitable temperament, a calm mind that helped him overcome flubs at the break in both of his starts. After scoring over a scant 4 1/2 furlongs in the slop, Classic Empire made up plenty of ground late to catch Recruiting Ready in the six-furlong Bashford Manor. (Recruiting Ready ran a virtual carbon copy of that race in the Saratoga Special [G2], where he was run down by Gunnevera.) Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up the mount from the injured Julien Leparoux. 

The Gary Contessa-trained Runaway Lute has earned his way into open company by dominating state-breds. Perhaps the early speed of this group, the son of sprint star Midnight Lute wired a five-furlong Belmont maiden by 12 lengths on debut. Things didn’t go according to plan next time in the July 16 Rockville Centre, for he stumbled at the start. But Runaway Lute simply went to Plan B and crushed them from just off the pace by 8 3/4 lengths. He steps up in class and tacks on another furlong here. With Castellano sticking with Bitumen, Runaway Lute gets a rider switch to Ricardo Santana Jr.

Practical Joke was a five-length debut winner here for Chad Brown, while Royal Copy had to fight determinedly to break his maiden at third asking. Yet Royal Copy has a lot going for him: he scored at this track and trip, making him the only contender with a win at the Hopeful distance; his additional racing experience has been a case of on-the-job training from Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, a six-time Hopeful winner; and he’s by Bodemeister and out of 2006 Matron (G1) winner Meadow Breeze (a half-sister to Overanalyze).

Pretty Boy Flash, who headed Royal Copy in midstretch before being repelled, is the other entrant with seven-furlong experience – and with three starts under his belt. The Steve Asmussen trainee has had trouble lines of various kinds each time, however, and a clean trip could put him in a better light. New rider John Velazquez will guide him from the outside post 7.

Fellow maiden Everybodyluvsrudy is trying something harder – a step up from a second going 5 1/2 furlongs at Belmont July 1. The form hasn’t exactly worked out, as the victorious Jewel Heist came back to finish a remote fourth behind Three Rules at Gulfstream. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez has attempted several times to get him in a Spa maiden, only to scratch or fail to draw in (as main-track-only or from the also-eligible list). Everybodyluvsrudy is cross-entered to a maiden Saturday, but is again on the outside looking in as an also-eligible.

Conspicuously absent from the Hopeful is Todd Pletcher, whose leading candidate, Theory, was ruled out with a physical ailment. Pletcher told NYRA publicity that he’ll know more after Tuesday’s examination at Rood and Riddle near Lexington, Kentucky.

One race earlier, the $250,000 Bernard Baruch (G2) features Ring Weekend (pictured) on a retrieval mission. A terrific comeback second to Takeover Target in the Dixie (G2) off a 14-month layoff, Ring Weekend was a lackluster sixth as the 5-2 favorite in the Fourstardave (G1). The Graham Motion charge may have been put out of his rhythm by a troubled start, and he wheels back for compensation. If back to his best, Ring Weekend rates as the one to beat. The Tapit gelding is a four-time graded stakes winner, notably of the Saranac (G3) here in 2014 and his signature success in the 2015 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1).

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott sends out a triumvirate – his Arlington Million (G1) duo of Dubai Sky and Take the Stand along with War Dancer. Dubai Sky was infamously scratched in the Arlington paddock after refusing to be re-shod, and this rerouting from the Million may work to his benefit. The 2015 Spiral (G3) winner will be making only his second start back from a 15-month layoff in a less daunting spot. Stablemate Take the Stand tried the Million in the wake of a 4 1/2-month holiday, and faded to last of 11. The front-running hero of the Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial (G2) in his prior start, the Argentine import is eligible to do better on Monday as a course-and-distance winner here last summer.

Yet another Million pre-entrant, Brown’s Takeover Target, ended up not entering Arlington’s showpiece. Preferring a tilt at Saratoga’s Fourstardave, he ultimately scratched from that race after it was postponed a week. Takeover Target prefers some ease in the ground, as illustrated by his Dixie win on Preakness Day, but he also sports a course-and-distance coup on firm going in last year’s National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame (G2).

Jay Gatsby, a Giant’s Causeway half-brother to War Front, just missed in the Lure at this course and distance. Having beaten a couple of subsequent stakes winners (Long on Value and Blacktype) in a Belmont allowance two back, the Joseph Allen homebred is on the upgrade for Jimmy Jerkens.

Lure sixth Solemn Tribute gets a rider change to Irad Ortiz Jr., and veteran Reporting Star, Natchez, and recently claimed Farhaan complete the line-up.

Bitumen photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese Photography

Ring Weekend courtesy Benoit Photo