Five horses to watch on Saturday
I'm looking forward to watching how several turf runners perform on Saturday. Although big efforts would be great, moves in the right direction would be welcome enough, and hopeful indicators of better to come.
Montclair makes his U.S. debut for Christophe Clement in the Cape Henlopen (7TH race at Delaware Park). Any son of Montjeu from a terrific German family is my kind of horse, so take that as full disclosure of bias on my part. More objectively speaking, the former Andre Fabre trainee was a useful stayer in France despite often racing on ground a bit too soft for him. The combination of quicker ground, an American pace scenario that should be more honest than the Gallic processions, and first-time Lasix ought to be in his favor. I should also mention that the old stager Al Khali will make his second start off a 22-month layoff here, but doesn't have the same upside over the long term, now that he's at the ripe old age of nine.
This is the race that launched Hardest Core to the 2014 Arlington Million (G1) -- not that history would exactly repeat itself, but Montclair will likely use this 1 1/2-mile event as a prep for loftier turf marathons.
In that vein, see the following comments on the website of his owners, OTI Racing:
"It has taken some time for the five-year-old to settle into his New York stable since departing France in May, but new trainer Christophe Clement is confident the horse is now ready to head to the track. A Group 3 winner over 3100m in France, Clement will use Saturday's 2400m event to start building up the horse's race fitness towards longer staying events.
"After two months of work with Montclair, the French-born trainer is confident that the horse can be more than competitive in staying races at the top level in America."
Up With the Birds was frustrating to follow last season, so Saturday's Arlington H. (G3) may provide a trend line in his second start since joining Graham Motion. The Sam-Son Farm homebred promised great things after his Canadian Horse of the Year campaign in 2013, but he delivered just once in 2014 in the Nijinsky. He especially disappointed me when fourth next time in the Arlington Million.
Fast forward to the May 16 Dixie (G2) at Pimlico, where Up With the Birds rallied from an impossibly wide position and finished third. That was an encouraging debut for Motion off a 5 1/2-month layoff. If the five-year-old can turn in a stronger performance over the Million course and distance Saturday, against a serious rival in Triple Threat, I'll be persuaded that he's back to his reliable self. [Update: Triple Threat has been scratched with a fever, so Up With the Birds' task just became easier.]
Mango Diva stretches out to a more suitable trip in the Modesty H. (G3) after a seventh in the May 16 Gallorette H. (G3) in her U.S. premiere. Although she had a less than ideal trip that day, Michael Matz's new recruit didn't really shape as the type to whizz around 1 1/16 miles at Pimlico.
Formerly with Sir Michael Stoute, the Holy Roman Emperor mare was on an upward curve at the end of 2013, and regained the winner's circle in the Kilboy Estate (Ire-G2) last summer. But she failed to progress as I'd hoped, and she ended up being sold for $868,109 at Tattersalls December. Her new owner -- George Strawbridge Jr.'s Augustin Stable -- decided to keep her in training. We'll find out if the change of scenery to the U.S. conjures up the improvement that's always seemed to lurk in there somewhere.
Three Hearts steps up to 1 1/2 miles for the first time in the Stars and Stripes (G3). That gambit versus males just became a lot tougher with the news that The Pizza Man will defend his title here rather than contest the Arlington 'Cap.
Nevertheless, Three Hearts looks like the type to prosper over the added ground. The Team Valor International homebred scored her signature win in the 1 3/8-mile Red Carpet (G3) at Del Mar in November, and she's been unlucky when placing in the Robert J. Frankel (G3) and Santa Barbara (G3). A half-sister to 2010 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) hero Pluck, Three Hearts hails from an exceptional South African family, so I'm hoping for a solid performance. It helps that the Neil Drysdale mare gets in light with only 112 pounds.
Finally, I'm curious to see how Wicked Strong fares in his turf debut in the Forbidden Apple (the 9TH race at Belmont Park). Among last year's notable sophomores on dirt, the Jimmy Jerkens pupil hasn't performed up to that standard so far at four. It makes sense to try the surface switch, judging by his pedigree. Of course, Wicked Strong runs into another son of Hard Spun, the exciting Reload from the Shug McGaughey barn. Reload was surely bound for bigger things in the spring of 2014, only to be sidelined for 15 months. Victorious in his comeback, Reload promises to make up for lost time.
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Up With the Birds photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography.