Internationals on Belmont Stakes Day
As a follow-up to the post on international shippers in the Belmont Stakes Festival on Thursday and Friday, here are my thoughts on the raiders lining up on Saturday.
Just a Game (G1)
As a Group 1-caliber filly who’s just below Europe’s best, Irish Rookie (or rather trainer Martyn Meade) is very clever to turn up here for a $700,000 purse.
The winner of both of her juvenile starts, including the Montrose Fillies’ Stakes over the smart Lady of Dubai, Irish Rookie has been mixing it up at a high level ever since. The Azamour filly nearly pulled off a 25-1 upset of last year’s French 1000 Guineas (G1), where only Ervedya could reel her in, and she concluded the year with an excellent third to Esoterique in the Sun Chariot (G1) at Newmarket. Both Ervedya and Esoterique are expected to face Tepin in Tuesday's Queen Anne (G1) at Royal Ascot.
Irish Rookie enters in good heart, as she rounds into form in her third start of 2016. The straight nine furlongs of the Dahlia (G2) at Newmarket presented a tough comeback spot, from both a distance and class perspective, and she wasn’t disgraced in fourth. (Note that the third, multiple Group 1 winner Amazing Maria, is also bound for the Queen Anne.) Irish Rookie was second to Godolphin’s Devonshire next time in the Lanwades (G2) on yielding ground at the Curragh. Although she runs well on good-to-soft, that was probably a little too soft for her. Belmont’s likely very quick ground may be a trifle firm for her, but she’s suited by the one-turn mile of the Widener course. Irish Rookie should perform very well in this spot.
The ex-French La Berma, who was originally entered in Thursday’s Intercontinental before aiming higher, makes her second stateside start for Jim Cassidy. Competing exclusively in stakes company since her debut score, she doesn't bring the same level of form as Irish Rookie. But she was a fine second to Impassable in last spring's Prix de Sandringham (G2), and runner-up again in the Prix du Pin (G3), this time to the Aga Khan’s Taniyar, while beating other second-tier males. Against several high-class males in the Prix de la Foret (G1), La Berma appeared in over her head.
The night before the Foret, she was sold for approximately $673,000 at the Arqana Arc Sale. La Berma surely needed the race when tiring to ninth in the Royal Heroine (G2) in her U.S. debut. The daughter of Lawman may prefer a little more give in the ground, though, so I’m interested in seeing how she handles firm turf at this level.
Note that Irish Rookie is an early nominee to the Beverly D. (G1), and La Berma isn't.
Metropolitan Mile (G1)
Trainer Jeremy Noseda has deserved better luck with Sloane Avenue. The well-bred son of Candy Ride, half-brother to Carve, and relative of Blame has been aiming for a big dirt prize for some time, only to be thwarted for various reasons.
Scratched the morning of the 2015 Donn (G1) after grabbing a quarter, the following month he nearly overcame the horror post 15 in the Godolphin Mile (G2). That was a heartbreaking loss by a nostril to Tamarkuz, and Sloane Avenue wasn’t seen for 11 months.
A pleasing second in his warm-up run over Kempton’s Polytrack in February, Sloane Avenue looked ready to gain compensation in his return trip to Dubai. But he didn’t fire his best when only fifth in the March 26 Godolphin Mile. He felt as though his back were out of sorts, according to jockey Frankie Dettori.
Sloane Avenue has flashed real talent when he’s right. Prior to his near-miss in the 2015 Godolphin Mile, he’d beaten future multiple Group 2 winner Cladocera at Kempton. On paper, a one-turn mile on dirt should be ideal for him, and he gets in at a mere 114 pounds. I suspect that he’s a lot more capable of transferring his form to Belmont than Meydan specialist Tamarkuz has been.
Noseda has long had the Met Mile on Sloane Avenue's agenda. He has a knack for getting his horses to perform in American conditions, from Wilko's upset of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) to Nemoralia's fine placings in last fall's Frizette (G1) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1).
Juddmonte’s multi-millionaire Flintshire ranks as a globetrotter emeritus these days, since he’s now putting down roots with Chad Brown. It must be admitted that 1 1/4 miles is short for this true 1 1/2-mile star, but remember that he almost won his 1 3/16-mile prep for last year’s Dubai Sheema Classic (G1). Only a filly the class of Dolniya prevented a successful reappearance then. Interestingly, Flintshire is engaged in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million (G1), and his performance here might be pivotal in determining his summer plans.
That leaves Oathkeeper as the only fresh foreign arrival, and it’s difficult to see him as much more than a chivalrous escort for the same connections’ Havana Moon (who runs in Friday’s New York [G2]). The 4-year-old son of Kitten’s Joy shaped like a promising prospect in his Chantilly maiden score last July, but hasn’t progressed in the interim. A change of scenery could work wonders. If so, it will take more time.
Triple Crown fans are well familiar with Lani by now, after his closing ninth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and even better fifth in the Preakness (G1). There’s precedent for horses learning their way through the classics before striking in the Belmont, and if any horse needed that educational experience, it’s Lani.
The added distance of the Belmont helps him in two ways: he’ll stay well, thanks to his stamina-laden dam, and he’ll have more time to react as the race unfolds. Another encouraging factor is the vast expanse of Belmont Park. This will feel more like Tokyo to him.
I think that Lani will deliver his best performance so far and crack the top three.
Trainer Mikio Matsunaga’s comment at Wednesday’s post draw is significant:
“To be honest, Belmont Stakes has been the main target since we came here to the U.S.”