Poker comes up tough with trio of Grade 1 winners

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Jen Caldwell

June 17th, 2016

A talented group of six runners will line up on Saturday in the $300,000 Poker Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park.

Obviously is the 9-5 favorite on the morning-line in the one-mile turf test but won’t have an easy time of it while going up against the likes of Grand Arch, Force the Pass and Takeover Target.

Trained by Phil D’Amato, Obviously is seeking his first win since taking the Shoemaker Mile (G1) in June 2014. The Choisir gelding closed out that year with a fifth-place run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) and didn’t reappear until late last season.

Obviously finally made an appearance in the Woodbine Mile (Can-G1) in November, leading nearly all the way home only to be caught in the shadow of the wire and forced to settle for third. He recorded just one more start in 2015, trying the Breeders’ Cup Mile again, but was passed by nearly the entire field to finish ninth after leading in the early going.

The now eight-year-old has done much better in two starts this year, making his seasonal bow a neck second in the San Gabriel Stakes (G2) on January 2 and filling that same spot by the same margin in the February 13 Arcadia Stakes (G2) last out.

Jose Lezcano has the call on Saturday as Obviously registers his Belmont Park debut in the Poker.

Grand Arch was one of those who passed Obviously in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, finishing third on the wire following a pair of wins in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) and Fourstardave Handicap (G2). The seven-year-old gelding owns only one start this year, just missing by three parts of a length when third in the Dixie Stakes (G2) last out on May 21.

Luis Saez has been aboard for Grand Arch’s past five starts and retains the mount Saturday.

Force the Pass has also started only once this season, with that coming as a half-length third in the Appleton Stakes (G3) on April 2. Last year the Alan Goldberg-trained four-year-old earned his biggest victory to date in the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) on Independence Day. That came after a head score in the Penn Mile (G3), and Force the Pass also placed in the Secretariat Stakes (G1) and Commonwealth Derby (G2) as a sophomore.

Top New York jockey Jose Ortiz will be in the saddle for the first time as Force the Pass tries to go two-for-two at Big Sandy.

Takeover Target captured the Dixie last out over Grand Arch, securing his first win since taking the Hill Prince Stakes (G3) to close out his three-year-old campaign last October. The Chad Brown pupil also captured the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes (G2) at Saratoga one race after finishing fifth in the Belmont Derby Invitational.

Takeover Target has steadily improved since opening 2016 with a fifth-placing in the Ft. Lauderdale Stakes (G2), running fourth in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) and second in the Danger’s Hour Stakes before his Dixie score most recently. Joel Rosario was aboard for that victory and will attempt to guide the Harlan’s Holiday colt to another winner’s circle photo.

King Kreesa has captured two of the past three runnings of the Poker, scoring in 2013 and 2015 after skipping the 2014 edition. The New York-bred star is 7-4-3 from 17 starts at Belmont and enters for a threepeat off a runner-up effort in the Kingston Stakes. Recent Belmont Stakes (G1)-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. has the call.

Rounding out the Poker field is the lightly raced Offering Plan, whose only stakes credits thus far are a win in the English Channel Stakes last October and a third in the 2014 Pilgrim Stakes (G3). Javier Castellano stays in the saddle after guiding the Brown trainee to an allowance/optional claiming win on May 14 to open his four-year-old campaign.

Obviously photo courtesy of Benoit Photo
King Kreesa photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography