International scouting report: Belmont Derby Invitational

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

July 8th, 2017

Pia Brandt isn’t a household name among American racing fans, but the French-based trainer sends out the most straightforward European challenger in Saturday’s $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1).

Called to the Bar, despite not having as many starts under his belt as Aidan O’Brien’s duo of Homesman and Whitecliffsofdover, has been a total professional from day one. And if he weren’t a gelding, surely Called to the Bar would be contesting the Grand Prix de Paris (G1) on Bastille Day. Instead he’s chasing the money at Belmont Park. If early indications can be believed, we might be saying that about him for years to come.

A Fair Salinia homebred co-owned by Brandt, Called to the Bar was a fine second in his career debut to Andre Fabre’s hotpot Waldgeist. If Called to the Bar didn’t have to wait for room as Waldgeist got first run, he would probably have reduced the two-length margin. Two starts later, Waldgeist landed the Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1), and this campaign, he just missed in the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1) and most recently finished fourth in the Irish Derby (G1). Called to the Bar was narrowly denied by another Fabre runner, Mask of Time, in his reappearance on soft ground at Fontainbleau.

Up in trip to 1 1/4 miles for a May 3 Chantilly maiden, Called to the Bar was a revelation. He lobbed along on the front end and delivered the coup de grace before his foes knew what hit them, giving jockey Maxime Guyon time for a few glances over the shoulder as he throttled him down.

Connections supplemented Called to the Bar to the May 23 Prix du Lys (G3), a trial for the Grand Prix de Paris. He repeated the pacesetting feat over 1 1/2 miles, again lulling his rivals into a false sense of security and quickening to put the race away.


Although it’s difficult to calibrate this lightly-raced French form with the more exposed Anglo-Irish three-year-olds, at least it is standing up internally. The second and third from the Lys have since come back to run one-two in the Prix Hocquart (G2), with old foe Mask of Time back in fourth.

Called to the Bar likely gets that turn of foot from sire Henrythenavigator, combined with the stamina of his broodmare sire Unfuwain, a Northern Dancer half-brother to Nashwan and Nayef who was a relentless galloper in his prime. His dam, Group 3 victress Perfect Hedge, is a half-sister to Australian Group 1 hero He’s Your Man. Called to the Bar’s third dam is the prolific Alexandrie, so the female line has no shortage of heft.

The concern is that this is a big ask for a sophomore with limited experience, consisting of four starts in France, to hop on a plane for the most searching test of his career. But Called to the Bar has yet to finish worse than second, and his forward running style should help him to work out a favorable trip. The fact that Guyon comes in for the ride is significant.

Brandt, who won last year’s Grand Prix de Paris with Mont Ormel, has also trained high-class stayer Bathyrhon, Camprock, current sprinter Fas, and 2014 Balanchine (G2) heroine L’Amour de Ma Vie, putting her on the map internationally at the Dubai Carnival. She’s also shipped to New York, with Rymska finishing second in last fall’s Miss Grillo (G3).


Aidan O’Brien nearly captured the inaugural Belmont Derby Invitational with Adelaide in 2014, returned triumphant in last year’s edition with Deauville, and now dispatches two contenders.

Neither brings the profile of Deauville into a stronger renewal, led by budding star Yoshida, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Oscar Performance, the progressive Arklow, and the talented if idiosyncratic Ticonderoga, who shouldn’t be anywhere near 15-1.

Homesman has a slight whiff of Adelaide about him, more in terms of how he’s getting here than in his overall profile. The May 26 foal wasn’t ready to start until late October as a juvenile, staying on strongly from well back for a promising second to stablemate War Secretary. Already in that seven-furlong Dundalk maiden, he hinted a preference for more ground.

Resurfacing in a 1 1/4-mile maiden at Navan April 24, Homesman drafted just behind the leaders, appeared to hit a flat spot on the far turn, but kept on dourly in the stretch. His inexperienced might have shown when not seeing much daylight. He was never going to win, but his fourth (beaten all of two lengths) was better than it looks on paper – especially if you factor in his physique. The dark bay is a big, robust type who takes some getting fit, and the combination of physical requirements and mental babyhood (he was adding cheekpieces) could account for a lot.

Homesman obliged six days later on a step up to about 11 1/2 furlongs at Limerick. Setting the pace while pressured throughout, he ducked out in the stretch and bumped a rival hard, but it wasn’t through tiredness. Homesman re-broke once straightened, powered away, and eased himself down late. Then he kept his win after a stewards’ inquiry into the body slam.

Although getting the hang of things, Homesman still needed some fine-tuning, so O’Brien threw him right back in two weeks later at the Curragh, dropped the cheekpieces, and added a visor. This was another valuable piece of schooling, since he was cutting back dramatically to a mile. He was going to have to react to different style of race. Not surprisingly, Homesman didn’t have the gears to match odds-on Irishcorrespondent (who went on to finish third to Churchill and Thunder Snow in the Irish 2000 Guineas [G1]), and he again wandered around wayward in midstretch. But he was far clear of third, and showed enough to take the next step at Group 3 level.

So far, there is no parallel with Adelaide, who broke his maiden in his sole outing at two and kicked off 2014 with a second in the Prix Hocquart (G2). But now their paths finally begin to mirror each other: both Adelaide and Homesman captured the 1 1/4-mile Gallinule (G3) on the way to creditable performances in defeat at Royal Ascot.

Homesman’s immaturity caused him to take a more circuitous path to the Gallinule, but the extra work paid off as he turned in a more professional display, now with blinkers added. Held up off the pace by Ryan Moore, who made sure to stoke him up early, he was workmanlike but effective down the stretch to thrust his head in front on the line (watch from 2:45):


“He's a big massive horse as you can see for a three-year-old,” O’Brien told, “and he was a little bit immature mentally but he's coming.

“That's why we put the blinkers on him just to try and get him together.

“I said he'd probably prefer better ground (than the yielding Gallinule) and a mile-and-a-quarter is probably his trip.

“We could look at the Irish Derby (G1) maybe…We could also look at the King Edward (VII [G2]) at Ascot for him. He's a big four-year-old really.”

Rather than the King Edward, in which Adelaide had finished second en route to Belmont in 2014, Homesman switched to handicap company for the King George V, also at 1 1/2 miles at Royal Ascot. While the King Edward would have been a significant class hike, going the handicap route meant conceding lumps of weight all around as the 133-pound highweight. So for him to make late headway into fifth, giving highly-regarded winner Atty Persse 14 pounds, was meritorious in the circumstances.

Homesman won’t have Moore in the saddle here, since the ace is riding Cliffs of Moher in Saturday morning’s Eclipse (G1) at Sandown. But he gets an excellent tactician in Colm O’Donoghue, plus the benefit of Lasix. As a steady improver, Homesman is eligible to move forward again. He’ll need to, for his intrigue lies entirely in potential.

In addition to coping with this caliber of competition, Homesman must also show a little more zip than he has so far. He’s liable to be outpaced before revving up late. You can see why he’s engaged in a key St Leger (G1) trial, the August 23 Great Voltigeur (G2) at York.

The Belmont Derby will answer the question of whether Homesman lacks a killer turn of foot at 1 1/4 miles, or simply the killer instinct. The latter can be acquired; the former cannot. Note that his 4-1 morning line is much skimpier than the bookmakers’ quotes, which range from 7 to 10-1.

Homesman’s stamina makes him a different specimen from his three-parts brother, U S Ranger (by Danzig), who placed in the July Cup (G1) and Prix de la Foret (G1). It also makes him an outlier among the progeny of War Front. The prime suspect in this genetic puzzle is his dam, a three-quarter sister to Dynaformer, and the Roberto/His Majesty influences are paramount. It’s worth pointing out this same immediate family produced the best War Front with 12-furlong ability, the ex-O’Brien Lines of Battle, aka Hong Kong’s champion stayer under the name of Helene Super Star. In his Irish days, he raced for the Coolmore partnership and breeder Joseph Allen – as his relative Homesman does now.

Stablemate Whitecliffsofdover has followed the more usual pattern for a War Front. A $1.15 million Keeneland September yearling, he’s got stallion prospect written all over him, being out of a full sister to Pulpit from the all-star family of Johannesburg and Tale of the Cat.

Whitecliffsofdover, a useful two-year-old, nevertheless came across as a bit of an underachiever. After an educational fourth on debut, he scored a good-looking wire job at Naas. His subsequent second in the Somerville Tattersall (G3) was decent, as he mixed it up in the vanguard, appeared engulfed, only to fight back up the rising ground. But it was hard not to be deflated by his loss in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1). In a perfect tracking spot before getting summarily dismissed by National Defense, he was unable to salvage second and wound up third.

Adding a tongue tie for his sophomore bow in Newmarket’s European Free Handicap, Whitecliffsofdover looked like a new horse when blitzing them on the front end. Back in business! Well, at least until the form didn’t work out at all for the alumni of that race, including Whitecliffsofdover. As the odds-on favorite in a listed stakes at Naas – his easier option after swerving the mile classics – he was a one-paced third. You could forgive him that in case the good-to-yielding ground were against him, but Whitecliffsofdover then flopped in the Jersey (G3) in ideal going at Royal Ascot. His 15th-place effort is obviously too bad to be true.

Might the addition of Lasix, a change of scenery to American conditions, and a stretch-out to 1 1/4 miles agree with him? Whitecliffsofdover has shown flashes of brilliance in the right environment. Yet his inconsistency is a concern, and it’s anyone’s guess if the added ground is really a desideratum for a horse whose current European engagements are in the seven to nine-furlong range. I’ve wondered in the past if they’d ever try him on dirt – any chance he remains stateside after Saturday? His 10-1 morning line is in line with the bookmakers.

Called to the Bar photo courtesy InfoArqana via Twitter

Homesman photo courtesy the Curragh via Facebook

Whitecliffsofdover photo courtesy BHA Press Office via Twitter