Empire Classic Handicap Leads Stakes-Packed Saturday Card at Belmont

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

October 17th, 2018

On a busy day of racing at Belmont Park, with eight stakes races for New York-breds on the agenda, the $300,000 Empire Classic Handicap will deservedly serve as the afternoon’s feature race.

The 1 1/8-mile event carries the richest purse on an eleven-race card offering a total of nearly $2 million in purse money, and the result is that eleven quality New York-breds have turned out to contest the Empire Classic.

That includes the defending Empire Classic winner Twisted Tom, who showed enough talent as a three-year-old last season to win both the Private Terms Stakes and the Federico Tesio Stakes against open company and finish sixth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) against some of the best colts in the country. However, the son of Creative Cause is winless in two starts this season and will need to step up his game for his new trainer Michael Stidham, who takes over from Chad Brown.

Control Group finished second behind Twisted Tom in the 2017 Empire Classic, though he came back one start later to win the Discovery Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct in decisive fashion, the first of three straight stakes victories he scored last winter. But like Twisted Tom, Control Group might need to improve a bit off his most recent run, a third-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Evan Shipman Stakes at Saratoga.

The top two finishers in the Evan Shipman—Can You Diggit and Pat On the Back—are back as well, and Pat On the Back in particular warrants serious respect based off his long record of strong efforts in New York-bred stakes races. The three-year-olds Sea Foam and Evaluator have also accomplished a lot in their young careers, with Sea Form most notably winning the New York Derby at Finger Lakes, though they have yet to run against older horses in stakes company and could find the tougher competition harder to handle.

Mr. Buff, the nine-length winner of a 1 1/8-mile state-bred allowance race at Saratoga two starts back, looms as one of the main dangers on the front end, along with Hit It Once More, who easily prevailed in the one-mile Haynesfield Stakes at Aqueduct last winter. Completing the field are Wine Not, fourth in the Evan Shipman Stakes but runner-up in the Saginaw Stakes one start prior, and the capable state-bred allowance runners Blugrascat’s Smile and Calculated Risk.

The Empire Classic Handicap is the tenth race on the card, with a post time of 5:23 p.m. Eastern.