Oscar Performance Returns in Poker Stakes

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

June 14th, 2018

It’s only a Grade 3 on paper, but you’re forgiven if you examine the field for Sunday’s $300,000 Poker Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park and mistake the one-mile race for a Grade 2 or even a Grade 1 event.

After all, the majority of the eight horses entered in the Poker have already achieved a high level of success, though none more than Oscar Performance. The son of Kitten’s Joy is a triple Grade 1 winner, having scored an impressive victory in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf before rattling off back-to-back wins in the Belmont Derby and Secretariat Stakes last summer. At his best, he could be tough to beat in the Poker, though the Brian Lynch-trained runner hasn’t competed since finishing ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) last November and wasn’t at his best off a layoff last spring, so it’s possible that he could need to get the Poker under his belt before returning to peak form.

Oscar Performance isn’t the only Belmont Derby winner in the field—Force the Pass won the race in 2015 and recently returned from a 19-month layoff to win the one-mile Cliff Hanger Stakes at Monmouth Park, suggesting that even though he’s six years old, he still has the speed to compete at a high level.

Ballagh Rocks will be seeking back-to-back wins in the Poker after prevailing by a neck in this race last year. Trained by Bill Mott, Ballagh Rocks has gone 0-for-4 since then but has hit the board in three Grade 1 races during that timeframe, most recently finishing second in the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland.

Fire Away might not be a graded stakes winner on turf, but he did score a career-best victory in an off-the-turf renewal of the Dixie Stakes (gr. III) last month and will return to his preferred surface for the Poker. Also switching from dirt to turf is Vulcan’s Forge, runner-up by a nose in the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) at Belmont in his most recent start.

Voodoo Song made headlines by winning four races during the 2017 Saratoga meet and was gallant in winning a seven-furlong allowance race at Belmont on May 12th by a nose, signaling that he’s ready for another big season. Made You Look, a two-time graded stakes winner on turf for trainer Todd Pletcher, won an allowance race over this course and distance last month in his debut for his new trainer Chad Brown, while Black Tide—a stakes winner against New York-breds—completes the field.

The Poker Stakes is the ninth race of the day, with a post time of 5:50 p.m. Eastern.