Owner J. Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez were on hand at Belmont Park Thursday morning as Triple Crown candidate I’ll Have Another galloped around the 1 ½-mile oval, with the only difference in his routine being that he departed the Belmont Stakes barn for the first time.
All the contenders for Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes, in which I’ll Have Another is attempting to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, spent the night in the special barn, where they will be housed until the 1 ½-mile race.
“He settled right in like we thought he would,” reported trainer Doug O’Neill. “He had a really good day of training today. He had really good energy and he cooled out really well, so we’re very happy with where we are two days out.”
Reddam, who purchased I’ll Have Another as a 2-year-old for $35,000, recalled watching and wagering on the Belmont as several horses attempted to accomplish what no thoroughbred has done since Affirmed in 1978.
“I bet against War Emblem, but I bet Medaglia d’Oro, so I lost anyway,” he said. “I bet against Funny Cide, because we had a horse in there – Ten Most Wanted – I hit the exacta although we ran second. Big Brown I did not bet against because I thought he was a cinch. That’s what scares me about the race on Saturday, because a lot of things can go wrong, as Big Brown illustrated.
“Smarty Jones, I was really rooting for Smarty Jones. With three-eighths of a mile to go, it looked like it was happening. Certainly Tom Durkin thought it was happening. But the race is a mile and a half, it’s not a mile and a quarter, and a sixteenth, or an eighth, or three-sixteenths, right?”
Reddam recalled indulging in a bit of wishful thinking the morning of the 2008 Belmont.
“The morning that Big Brown is going to run, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Big Brown is going to win the Triple Crown. Why is this happening? Why can’t it just wait for us?’ But that was kind of a joking thought. And here we are. I didn’t wish ill on Big Brown, by any means, but it’s quite a long shot that we’re actually here.”
The plans to have O’Neill, Reddam, and Gutierrez throw out the first pitch for Friday’s New York Mets-New York Yankees game at Yankee Stadium have been canceled as the tandem will have Boxeur des Rues competing in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap at 5:44 p.m.
Thoroughbred owners can go a lifetime without acquiring a horse who can make an impact on the Triple Crown, but such success has come quickly for Donegal Racing, which on Saturday will attempt to win its first Classic when the partnership, headed by Jerry Crawford, sends out Dullahan in the Belmont Stakes.
In 2008, Crawford formed a partnership among friends after purchasing eight yearlings at auction. One of the yearlings, Paddy O’Prado, went on to win the Grade 1 Secretariat and finish third in the Kentucky Derby for Donegal and trainer Dale Romans. Two years later, Donegal and Romans were third in the Derby once again, this time with Dullahan.
“Our partnership ranges from people who have been in the horse business for decades to people who had never been to a horse race until they became a partner in this,” said Crawford, an attorney from Des Moines, Iowa.
Crawford, who has served as the Iowa chair or co-chair for seven presidential campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s in 1996, said 22 partners are involved with Dullahan and that the group will have 300 supporters in tow on Saturday.
“Donegal started as a group of close friends, and it’s expanded to include close old friends and close new friends,” said Crawford. “We get to share experiences with our families and close friends, and that’s one of the best things life has to offer.”
Romans said he wouldn’t mind being booed if Dullahan won the Belmont, and Crawford expressed a similar, albeit slightly softer, sentiment.
“You can imagine the range of emotions is great, but we’re a very upbeat group, so being cast in the role of potential spoiler is a little alien to our personality,” said Crawford. “It’s our job [to challenge I’ll Have Another]. This is what we owe Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat. If I’ll Have Another wins, I’ll be first in line to say, ‘This is an incredibly worthy champion.’”
On Thursday, Dullahan galloped 1 ½ miles and schooled in the paddock prior to the fourth race.
With the 12 horses in the Belmont Stakes racing at 1 ½ miles for the first time in their careers, the distance is a question mark for all. Although the progeny of Union Rags’ sire, Dixie Union, do their best running up to 1 1/8 miles, trainer Michael Matz said the colt’s pedigree on his mother’s side will help him get the distance.
“His second and third dam were 1 ½-mile horses,” Matz said, referring to Terpsichorist, who won up to 1 5/8 miles, including route victories in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap and Grade 3 Long Island Handicap, and Glad Rags II, a champion filly in Ireland. “They ran 1 ½ miles, and I think that’s where he gets the distance from. Dixie Union hasn’t produced anything over 1 1/8 miles, but I think on the female side, there’s a distance pedigree. He’s a big horse with a long stride; he covers the ground easy … but we don’t know. Nobody knows. They’ll probably never run this distance again in their lives. It’s a big question mark.”
Union Rags had a brilliant career at 2 and was one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, only to finish a disappointing seventh after a troubled trip. With a new jockey in John Velazquez, who replaces Julien Leparoux, Matz would love nothing more than to see his horse get a clean journey to show what he can do.
“He’s [Union Rags] coming in very good; he worked very good,” Matz said. “All I am asking for is a clean trip. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He had two unfortunate races. Whether it was the rider, the trainer, or the horse, I don’t know. Sometimes you just have to do something to go about it a little differently. I think he had some bad luck.
“I don’t think he had a chance his last two races to run. I don’t think you can blame it on him. We’ll find out Saturday. A mile-and-a-half might not be the place to start, but it’s the last Triple Crown race and I think he deserves a chance.”
As usual, trainer Bob Baffert attracted a crowd everywhere he went on the backstretch Thursday morning, two days before Zayat Stables’ colt Paynter runs in the 144th Belmont Stakes.
Having won the Belmont with Point Given in 2001 as well as bringing three different horses – Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002 – into the race with a chance to annex the Triple Crown, the Hall of Famer is well-versed in the agonies and ecstasies of the “Test of the Champion.”
This year, with the fast and dangerous Paynter, he will attempt to play the role of spoiler to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another.
“You’re disappointed,” Baffert said when asked about how it feels to get so close and not get the job done. “You’re exhausted. You wanted it to be over with, but it’s disappointing because you came so close and your horse ran so hard and then you come up short and forget about your Derby win and your Preakness win. You’re really just deflated. I used to say, ‘I want to win the Derby and just go home and better enjoy it!’
“Like Silver Charm, you feel like, ‘If he had seen that other horse (Touch Gold).’ When he took back, Gary Stevens thought [Touch Gold] was done. When I saw him go back, I thought ‘Touch Gold is done. I feel better.’ Then all of a sudden, when Touch Gold re-rallied, we picked him to the outside, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God!’ [Chris] McCarron was playing possum. That was a really great ride.
“Real Quiet needed a horse to carry him a little bit further,” Baffert said. “He was out by himself turning for home. He didn’t really move early, he just needed something in there to carry him. Once he got the lead, his ears would come up and he’d just shut it down. And then [Victory Gallop] came to him, and then he took off again. The only time he was behind was at the wire. He was in front before and after.”
With Point Given, Baffert’s only Belmont winner among nine American Classic scores, the trainer had a horse he believed good enough to win the Triple Crown. Point Given failed to fire in the Kentucky Derby and then won the Preakness before running the fastest Belmont Stakes (2:26.80) in the past 16 years.
For that race, Baffert wasn’t sweating like the others.
“In Point Given, when I brought him here, I knew he was a cinch,” he said.
When Chad Brown worked for late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, the young assistant learned the importance of knowing your horse and its strengths. On Saturday, Brown will attempt to emulate his mentor – who in 2003 ended Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid by sending out Empire Maker to a victory in the Belmont Stakes – when he saddles Magnolia Racing Stable and Hidden Brook Farm’s Street Life for the “Test of the Champion.”
Developing Street Life required Brown to use the same understanding Frankel employed when he spotted his horses. Following Street Life’s eighth-place debut in a six-furlong sprint at Gulfstream Park in January, Brown realized the colt would be better off spending the winter with his string in New York, which offered the son of Street Sense ample opportunities to compete around two turns on Aqueduct’s inner track.
“Some horses love Gulfstream’s track, others don’t,” said Brown. “We got a sprint race into him and he didn’t make an impact. [Jockey] Jose Lezcano came back, and despite the horse not being a factor in the race he was very happy with the horse. He said, ‘This horse really never got to run to the wire. I had a tough time pulling him up. I think you need to get this horse going long, two turns, somewhere.’ So I took his advice, and I brought the horse to New York. He really did well here in the winter.”
Under the care of assistant trainer Cherie DeVaux, Street Life won his next two starts, a maiden special weight race in February and the Broad Brush overnight stakes in March, both around two turns at the Big A. After a disappointing sixth in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial in April, the colt rebounded to finish a fast-closing third in Belmont Park’s Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 12, his most recent start.
Many of Brown’s biggest wins to date have come on turf with fillies and mares, having captured the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with Maram, the 2011 Grade 1 Diana with Zagora, and the 2011 Grade 1 Beverly D. and Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational with Stacelita. He earned another Grade 1 win, this time on dirt, in the 2011 Gazelle with Awesome Feather. Brown, however, is eager to prove that he, like Frankel, can succeed with any type of horse, not just turf runners or females.
“Did Bobby have a special way with fillies? Sure he did,” said Brown. “Did he have a special way with turf horses? Sure he did. Did Bobby have a special way with European horses? Sure he did. He passed those things on to me, and, like Bobby, you start to get not labeled but maybe people start to think of you as favoring training those types of horses.”
Although Frankel trained turf champions Intercontinental, Leroidesanimaux, Possibly Perfect, Ryafan, and Wandesta, Brown was quick to point out some of the top dirt runners Frankel developed.
“When I worked for him, Medaglia d’Oro was a killer on the dirt going long, and so were Ghostzapper and Ginger Punch,” said Brown. “So were Empire Maker and Peace Rules. Squirtle Squirt won going three-quarters.”
Street Life, who in the Belmont could give Brown his first Grade 1 victory with a male horse, galloped 1 ½ miles on Thursday and schooled in the paddock before the third race.
“I thought he [galloped] perfectly,” said Brown. “I couldn’t be any happier.”
The first Belmont Stakes horse on Belmont Park’s main track Thursday morning was My Adonis, who galloped just over a mile after the gates opened at 5:30.
New Jersey-based trainer Kelly Breen was on hand to watch My Adonis, who was a late confirmation for the race, coming on the evening before Wednesday’s entries were drawn.
“I needed to get back to Monmouth Park and take care of some things, so I wanted to see him and then beat the traffic to get back,” Breen said. “He looked good. We were the first ones on the track going the right way, so it was kind of like his own track.
“He probably looked around a little more than a horse would if there was company or something like that, but that’s him. I think most horses have a tendency to look around a little bit when there’s not much going on. I was very happy with what I saw.”
Most recently third, beaten a half-length, in the Canonero II at Pimlico Race Course on May 5, My Adonis has never raced at Belmont, but is no stranger to New York. He was second to 2011 juvenile male champion Hansen in the Grade 3 Gotham on March 3, and seventh of eight in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial on April 7, both at Aqueduct.
Breen won last year’s Belmont Stakes for owners George and Lori Hall with 24-1 long shot Ruler On Ice. Ridden by Elvis Trujillo in each of his 10 career starts, My Adonis will have champion jockey Ramon Dominguez aboard on Saturday.
“I don’t know his actual ability, how fast he can run, but I think he’s ready to run as best as he possibly can on Saturday,” Breen said of My Adonis. “He’s pumped up, he looks good, and he’s training good. I’d have to say that if he’s that caliber, he’s going to give them hell.”
The forehead slice Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sustained Tuesday, courtesy of a kick in the head from his sprinter Hamazing Destiny, had been joined Thursday morning by a puffy shiner under his left eye.
Unflappable as always, Lukas, 76, who runs Optimizer on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, emerged from his brief hospital stay for stitches and appeared talkative and in good spirits at the post position draw on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, when the black eye showed up, he held court at his temporary base in trainer John Hertler’s barn, talking about the finer points of his betting strategy.
At the Kentucky Derby, Lukas had a seven-horse superfecta box but said a handicapper talked him out of using Went the Day Well in favor of Take Charge Indy. The bet paid $96,000. At the Breeders’ Cup, Lukas said he likes to put in all his superfecta bets before the first race, “and then sit there and watch them like the lottery.”
Asked about the Belmont, Lukas said his Optimizer is the only long shot (20-1) in the field of 12 he sees sneaking into the big picture.
“The horses everybody talks about are going to run the table,” Lukas said. “The five or six that dropped in, I don’t see them doing anything. I think we’ve got a chance to be in the superfecta. I think we can upset them.”
Lukas said his betting strategy is predicated on one rule: “Get ahead early.”
As for Bluegrass Hall LLC’s Optimizer, he had a routine gallop in the morning.
Ken McPeek was happy with the way both Atigun and Unstoppable U galloped two days before the Belmont Stakes, admitting that he wasn't looking for a lot from either of them.
“Just basic stuff,” he said. “Nothing complicated. Just nice, steady gallops. They're both extremely strong.
“Atigun is doing good,” he added. “He had a real strong gallop today.”
Though McPeek had expressed doubt earlier this week about running Unstoppable U on Saturday, the horse's recent form has him feeling more confident.
“The horse is a monster,” he said. “He's never been outworked in the morning or the afternoon.”
Unstoppable U's reluctance to change leads had given McPeek pause, but the trainer said the gray son of Exchange Rate is finally learning his lesson.
“Two works ago, he was really unprofessional,” he said. “He worked from the five-eighths pole all the way to the wire on the left lead and still went :59. So the talent’s there, but he hasn't figured out, ‘OK, I need to change to my right lead when we turn for home,’ and we work really hard trying to get him to do it.”
Changing leads has been the focus of the horse's works since then.
“I wasn’t so worried about ‘fast,’ I was worried about professional,” said McPeek. “I actually told Junior Alvarado, ‘I'm more worried about your switching to the right lead when you turn the corner than I am with how fast you go.’ You’ve got to get the repetition down because I don’t think you can win this race if you don't hit on all cues.”
Though McPeek acknowledges that both of his horses are placed ambitiously, he does say Unstoppable U's familiarity with Belmont Park is a big advantage.
“He's trained here his whole career, and that's a big edge,” he said. “You have to train over this track to win over this track. It's nicknamed ‘Big Sandy’ for a reason, and if we don't get any rain between now and Saturday, I think it's going to give an edge to horses who have been here.”
He’s also comfortable with his horses’ roles as longshots. Referring to John Ed Anthony, whose Shortleaf Stable owns Atigun, he said, "Mr. Anthony won this race [in the name of Loblolly Stable] with Temperence Hill at 50-1, and I won it with Sarava at 70-1, so we’re familiar with being the underdog.”
Trainer Dominick Schettino will celebrate his 46th birthday on Saturday by running five horses on the card, including Five Sixteen in the 144th Belmont Stakes.
The only other time Schettino ran a horse in a Triple Crown race came in the 2005 Preakness Stakes when his Galloping Grocer moved to the leaders into the far turn before giving way in the stretch and finishing 13th. Schettino said he later discovered the horse had a lung infection.
At 50-1, MeB Racing Stables LLC’s Five Sixteen is among the three longest shots on the morning line, but Schettino is going about his business as he always does.
As the son of Invasor acted up in the gate in his most recent start, an entry-level allowance April 18 at Aqueduct, Schettino schooled the gelding in the starting gate Thursday morning and then galloped him 1 ½ miles.
“He schooled and he was fine,” the trainer said.
Schettino said he will have 12 family members at the track for his birthday and busy race schedule.
“I better go to sleep early Friday,” he quipped. “Win, lose or draw in the Belmont, I’ve got four others running, and I treat them all the same. I’m focused on all five of them, not just one.”
As has been his custom this week, Guyana Star Dweej went to the main track Thursday morning with other Belmont Stakes contenders at 8:30, accompanied by Grade 3 winner Shkspeare Shaliyah.
The 3-year-old stablemates galloped once around the 1 ½-mile oval before heading back to the Belmont stakes barn.
“The exercise rider went a little slower than I wanted him to go, but I’m pleased with the way he went,” owner-trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal said. “He is more competitive with company, but tomorrow I’m going to relax him by himself. He won’t do much.”
This will be the second straight appearance in the Belmont for Shivmangal, who ran last of 12 with Isn’t He Perfect in 2011.
“This is a different caliber horse from Isn’t He Perfect,” Shivmangal said. “This horse was bred to go long. He has the stamina, and all I need from [jockey] Kent [Desormeaux] is to rate this horse, just get him to relax a little bit on the backside.”
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another is poised to become racing’s first Triple Crown champion in 34 years with a victory in the Belmont, but Shivmangal said he wouldn’t have any problem being a spoiler to the historic quest.
“I will be very, very happy and proud to do that, and I think I have a shot of doing it,” Shivmangal said. “I did not go in because I just want to go in the Belmont. Winning a race of this magnitude would be great for me. It would be huge, and something that I’m looking forward to. Of course, it would make anybody very happy and excited.”
At 83, trainer Manny Azpurua has been around the racing game all his life, winning more than 3,500 races in his native Venezuela before relocating permanently to the United States in 1979.
Asked why he brought Ravelo’s Boy, a 50-1 long shot in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, all the way from Florida for the race, the soft-spoken but affable Azpurua always has the same answer.
“You have to try, my friend,” he said.
Ravelo’s Boy jogged once and galloped once around the 1 ½-mile main track Thursday morning under exercise rider Enrique Barcenas. The Belmont will be the Lawyer Ron colt’s first start outside of Florida.
“He’s doing very, very good,” Azpurua said. “I’m pleased with the way he handles the track. My boy said he has the perfect stride and is doing everything right. He came back like nothing happened. I told my owner, he’s coming into the race in top shape. We’ll see what happens.”
Azpurua has never saddled a starter in the Belmont, though his brother, Leo, ran seventh with Sir Sir in 1977, when Seattle Slew became the only undefeated Triple Crown champion. I’ll Have Another is seeking to become the 12th horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and first since Affirmed in 1978.
“I don’t like to take a chance if I don’t have some kind of good feeling,” Azpurua said. “I’m feeling that way. I bring horses that sometimes they say, ‘That trainer is crazy.’ But every time I come to the big races, I’ll be there.”
Azpurua ran third in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Sprint with multiple stakes winner Nightmare Affair, and fourth in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Extended Applause.
Alex Solis will ride Ravelo’s Boy for the first time in the Belmont.