Belmont Stakes Day becoming a special event

Horse Racing

As previously noted a few times in this space, I’m a big fan of what the New York Racing Association has created over the last few years with Belmont Stakes Day. I do have issues with the NYRA overloading some other Saturdays of the Belmont spring meet with stakes, leaving slim pickings on other days that should be better than they are. I mean, I’m still trying to get why three graded stakes were run at Belmont on May 6, four were run on May 13, and five will be run on July 8, yet the Memorial Day program didn’t have a single graded event.

But Belmont Stakes Day is a different deal. From the outset, I loved how the NYRA made Belmont Day a not-so-pale imitation of Breeders’ Cup Saturday. By packing this day with so many major races, such as the Met Mile and the Ogden Phipps, the NYRA made Belmont Stakes Day substantially less reliant on the Belmont Stakes itself. And that is important because, as we all know, the fate of the Belmont is always at the mercy of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

This year is a perfect example. Saturday’s Belmont Stakes field will not have the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness winner. In the old days, that would have made Belmont Day a dud. But with eight other stakes races, five of them Grade 1s, two with seven-figure purses, and with a total stakes disbursement on the day of $7.2 million, Belmont Day is now the strongest day in North American racing next to the Breeders’ Cup. And in my view, it’s rivaled by only Travers Day.

(Right here, let me stress again something that has also been discussed in this space a few times: Although I wish the NYRA would do something to enhance Memorial Day, I strongly disagree with those who would like to see the Met Mile moved back to what used to be its traditional home on that holiday. I love the Met Mile; it’s one of my very favorite races. But I do not believe in any way that it is overshadowed or disrespected by being run on the Belmont Stakes undercard. More people will see the Met Mile on any Belmont Day than on any Memorial Day, certainly live, but in simulcast form, too. And more exposure is what a great race like the Met Mile deserves.)

The Met Mile is the second-richest race of the day Saturday with a purse of $1.2 million (the Belmont’s purse is $1.5 million), but it will very likely be upstaged by the $750,000 Ogden Phipps, which marks the 4-year-old bow of the brilliant two-time champion Songbird. We in New York are very fortunate that it will be here where Songbird makes her first start since her narrow miss to Beholder in that great Breeders’ Cup Distaff last fall. At the same time, I can’t help but have empathy for Carina Mia, who seems poised for a lucrative campaign this year after chasing Songbird in vain a couple of times last year, yet sees the champ turn up in her own back yard for the race she’s been targeting.

Other races I’m looking forward to Saturday at Belmont — well, honestly, I’m looking forward to all of them — include the Met Mile, the Woody Stephens, and the Brooklyn (yes, the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn).

Mor Spirit is in career form off blowout stakes wins in his last two starts and will be tough in the Met Mile, but I’m a believer in Sharp Azteca, who ran huge in defeat in the Godolphin Mile on the Dubai World Cup undercard, and who is among the very best one-turn horses we have.

American Anthem engineered a career reset with a sharp score in the Laz Barrera last month and is a prime win threat in the Woody Stephens.

But I’m intrigued by Wild Shot, winner of the Pat Day Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard in a performance that I think was much better than people realize.

As for the Brooklyn, it will feature a rematch between Send It In and Tu Brutus, who might be two of the best older male long-distance horses we’ve had in many years. Send It In and Tu Brutus were a half-length apart and 14 lengths ahead of anyone else when one-two in the 10-furlong Excelsior at Aqueduct in April, which earned a jaw-dropping winning Beyer Figure of 119. And Tu Brutus somewhat validated that huge fig with an 11-length romp in the 11-furlong Flat Out last month.

Add in other races such as the $1 million Manhattan, the Acorn, and the Just a Game, and a Belmont Stakes that isn’t as strong as most would hope for becomes an issue of far less consequence.

Saturday notes

* What a terrific show Stellar Wind and Vale Dori put on in the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita, with Stellar Wind prevailing in a race-long battle between these two. The whole world already knew that Stellar Wind, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2016, was good, and she is now 2 for 2 this year at 5, both in Grade 1 events. But Vale Dori effort was an eye opener. She had won six straight, but for my money she showed more in her neck loss in the Beholder than she did in any of her wins.

* Maybe the least known two-time Grade 1 stakes winner this year is Bal a Bali. He got his first in the Kilroe Mile in March and added another Saturday in the Shoemaker Mile, also at Santa Anita. If Bal a Bali were mine, he’d never run in another race that was an inch longer than a mile.

* I was left a little cold by the big 3-year-old turf races at Penn National and Belmont. Frostmourne and Big Score looked okay visually coming from off the pace to finish one-two. But the time of the Penn Mile was 1:35.04, .41 seconds slower than unheralded 3-year-old fillies went in a routine Penn Oaks three races earlier.

As for the Pennine Ridge at Belmont, some took Oscar Performance’s front-running win in as a return to form for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner. I ask, how do you know? When Secretary At War, who won his last two in front-running fashion, declined to engage Oscar Performance early, it handed Oscar Performance the easiest walking lead a horse could ever want. If Oscar Performance didn’t capitalize on that huge gift, you could have written him off as gone with a capital “G.”

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