LAS VEGAS — Just what is Coolmore up to in its bid to win a second consecutive Belmont Derby? And is that some wascally wabbit in its barn?
The Irish super-stable run by Aidan O’Brien has shipped two horses to New York for Saturday’s 1¼-mile race, the biggest turf event of the year on the East Coast. Homesman is a Group 3 winner that is a 4-1 morning-line contender. Whitecliffsofdover is a 12-1 sprint specialist that faded badly in the Group 3 Jersey Stakes last month at Royal Ascot.
So has Whitecliffsofdover been relegated to the role of Homesman’s pace-setter for a $1.2 million Grade 1 race? Assistant trainer T.J. Comerford, the “traveling lad” who is on Long Island looking after O’Brien’s horses, said that is not the case.
“He won’t be used as a rabbit,” Comerford said. But he understood why someone might get that impression. “That’s not to say that stretching him out over here won’t inconvenience him. But I don’t think Aidan would send a rabbit the whole way out here just to do that. He’s having his own go at the race. If he’s good enough he’ll be there at the end – as long as he stays.”
Brian Lynch has to be curious about Whitecliffsofdover. He trains Oscar Performance (3-1), the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner that is expected to be Saturday’s favorite. The ridgling by Kitten’s Joy finished first in a Grade 3 race last month on the same Belmont inner-turf course that Lynch hopes will be firm again this weekend.
When posed with the idea that Whitecliffsofdover could be full of early speed, Lynch said, “I don’t know if what they call speed is what we call speed. But if he goes to the lead that’s going to change the whole preference of the race.”
If Whitecliffsofdover had not been entered, Oscar Performance might have been the early leader – and only because there is no other pure speed in Saturday’s race. Seven of the 11 horses are closers, including trainer Bill Mott’s impressive graded-stakes debutant Yoshida (7-2), the second choice on the morning line.
“Yoshida has run a couple of good races,” Mott said. “He’s just short on seasoning.”
One unanswered question with Yoshida and Oscar Performance is whether they can get the distance. Not so with Homesman, which has raced 10 furlongs – and won. He scored in late May on yielding ground in a Group 3 race at the Curragh.
“This is probably a big step up for him straight away after winning at the Curragh,” said Comerford, who will give a leg up to journeyman jockey Colm O’Donoghue for the ride on Homesman. “He looked like he was going to get beat, but then he stayed going the same speed, and he passed horses at the finish. He fought it out well. This time he’s going to get his (firmer) ground.”
When it comes to lasting the distance, the French gelding Called To The Bar (5-1) has the strongest résumé in the field. He comes in off wins at 1¼ and even 1½ miles, the latter in his last race 6½ weeks ago. That is when he took a reluctant lead after a quarter-mile, never to be caught in the slowly run Group 3 Prix du Lys. Like Oscar Performance, Called To The Bar will not be racing on Lasix.
All the others will be on the diuretic; the Coolmore horses will race with it for the first time. That was just fine last year for Deauville, which won the Belmont Derby by a neck for O’Brien and, yes, for Comerford.
“When he won last year Deauville had a bad draw, went forward and really went well at the finish,” Comerford said. “This year he was third in the Queen Anne (at Royal Ascot). Deauville turned out to be a decent horse. He could an Arlington Million horse.”
That is the feature next month near Chicago on a turf card that includes the Secretariat Stakes, another 1¼-mile race for 3-year-olds. Comerford said that depending on what happens Saturday, Homesman and/or Whitecliffsofdover might be there.
“That would be the plan,” Comerford said. “We’ve all been knocking on the door with this race. You’d like to try and win it if you can. We’re probably not as good a chance as we’ve had in the past, but with two horses on the faster ground – this should be perfect for them.”
If scattered thunderstorms this weekend evade Belmont Park, Lynch said that Saturday should be perfect, too, for Oscar Performance.
“He’s the 3-1 favorite, so he’ll have a bull’s-eye on his back,” Lynch said. “If they leave him alone long enough, he’s a very tough horse to catch. If someone wants to go crazy on the lead, he can sit off. The rain is a bit of a scare, but everything looks good, and he’s going great. There will be no excuses for him.”
The Belmont Derby will be the 10th race on Saturday’s card with the scheduled post time 6:50 p.m. EDT.
Brown saddles top two contenders in Oaks
Reigning U.S. champion trainer Chad Brown has a French import that is new to his barn and a Breeders’ Cup winner as the top two on the morning line for Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Belmont Oaks, another 1¼-mile race on the Belmont Park turf.
Transferred from Henri-Alex Pantall, the closer Sistercharlie was last seen coming up just a length short while finishing second three weeks ago in the Grade 1 Prix de Diane – a.k.a the French Oaks. Ridden this weekend by John Velázquez and starting in the outside gate against 11 other 3-year-old fillies, Sistercharlie (5-2) is the presumptive favorite.
The more familiar New Money Honey (7-2) figures to be the second choice. She won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf for Brown, who also saddled her win last month at Belmont Park in the Grade 3 Wonder Again. Four-time reigning U.S. champion jockey Javier Castellano will ride the filly sired by Medaglia d’Oro.
Two other Brown fillies – a second French import Uni (6-1) and Wonder Again runner-up Fifty Five (8-1) – are also in the race that has a post time of 5:40 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Epsom Derby runner-up Cliffs Of Moher (2-1) is the favorite in a quality field of nine for Saturday’s 1¼-mile Group 1 Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, England. The 3-year-old Coolmore colt sired by Galileo is a narrow choice over Godolphin colt Barney Roy (3-1), which won the St. James’s Palace Stakes last month at Royal Ascot. Eminent (4-1), a Frankel colt that ran into traffic and finished fourth in the Epsom Derby, is the third choice. Decorated Knight (8-1), the Prince of Wales’s runner-up at Royal Ascot, is also in the race that starts at 10:35 a.m. EDT Saturday.
The world’s top-ranked thoroughbred is now an even-money favorite at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Defending champion Arrogate had been a 6-5 favorite last month. Shaman Ghost held steady at 7-1 ahead of his run as a likely odds-on favorite at 6:18 p.m. EDT Saturday in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park. After winning last month’s Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, Gun Runner’s odds for the Breeders’ Cup Classic shortened from 12-1 to 7-1.
Maiden winner Petrov (7-2) drew the rail and is the morning-line favorite for Friday night’s $250,000 Grade 3 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows near Des Moines. Third in last month’s Peter Pan at Belmont Park, Impressive Edge (4-1) figures to be the second betting choice followed by stakes debutant McCormick (9-2) and Sunland Derby winner Hence (5-1). Post time for the Iowa Derby is 10:50 p.m. EDT Friday.
Mubtaahij, the 5-year-old horse that finished second to California Chrome in the 2016 Dubai World Cup, has been transferred to Hall of Fame trainer to Bob Baffert. Owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa (not to be confused with his cousin, Godolphin’s Sheikh Mohammed), Mubtaahij has bounced between South African trainer Mike de Kock and American Kiaran McLaughlin. Winless in his last 10 starts, Mubtaahij may be pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic, for which he is 40-1 at Wynn Las Vegas.
Wagering on U.S. and Canadian horse races rose less than 1 percent during the first half of 2017. Equibase reported year-to-date betting through June 30 totaled $5,556,350,090. That is up 0.2 percent from the first half of last year. This was despite a 1.2 percent drop in the number of races that were run. An average of $2,592,791 was wagered each day, an increase of 1.8 percent.