Elmont, New York
Joel Rosario knew something. He may have known more than Mark Casse, the trainer that hired him to ride Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
No, not on Preakness winner War of Will. A century after Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown, it was another Sir – Sir Winston – the other Casse that won the finale in this the weirdest of Triple Crown seasons.
Pursuing a slow pace from the middle of a bunched pack, Sir Winston (10-1) took the short way home along the rail, parlaying a runner-up finish here in last month’s Peter Pan Stakes into a one-length victory over the favorite Tacitus (9-5) in the 151st renewal of the $1.5 million Grade 1 Belmont.
“He didn’t mind the inside,” said Rosario, who made the switch to Sir Winston after riding Everfast to a surprise runner-up finish three weeks ago in the Preakness. “Today he was a little closer, so I let him be where he was comfortable.”
Pacesetting rail starter Joevia (21-1), the longest shot in the field of 10, held on to finish third. Considering the slow early half-mile and mile times of 48.79 and 1:38.27, there was every chance that he might have stolen the race on this sun-baked, 80-degree day at Belmont Park. Instead, it was Sir Winston’s 2:28.30 for the 1½ miles that was good enough.
“He’s an amazing little horse,” said Casse, who became the first trainer in 24 years to win two Triple Crown races in one year with two different horses. “At this time last year if you had asked me to rate our top 20 2-year-olds, he would have been about 16th or 17th.”
Not that he was much higher than that on too many lists unless it was limited to colts named after British prime ministers. Then again, Sir Winston did shorten to 7-1 on the William Hill app that was taking future bets as late as Saturday afternoon in Nevada. He was as long as 20-1 overseas this past week and 16-1 off shore, turning this so-called Test of the Champion into a referendum on horseplayers’ confidence. Other than Tacitus, the chalk proved to be a severe disappointment.
Intrepid Heart (6-1), a wise-guy horse chosen Thursday in this column and heavily backed to become the third choice of bettors, was never a factor. He finished eighth over fast ground that had been kind of pacesetters in Saturday’s early races. By late afternoon, though, the track was more – dare one say – fair and balanced.
Looking tired from racing in three classics in five weeks, War Of Will (7-2) finished next to last in the field of 10 for Casse and jockey Tyler Gaffalione. “I squeezed on him a little bit,” Gaffalione said, “He just didn’t have that punch like he normally does.”
Casse admitted that he switched his cheering late in the race from War Of Will to Sir Winston. “I could see where War Of Will was struggling,” he said. “I saw Joel cut the corner a little bit, so I went to riding Sir Winston. It’s tough to do because you have two horses; I love War Of Will as well.”
As expected, Joevia set the early pace with eventual fourth-place finisher Tax (11-1) tailing him no more than two lengths off the lead until the top of the stretch. It was there where Rosario, now a two-time Belmont winner, made his move to the rail on Sir Winston, an Awesome Again colt that had never won in four previous tries on real dirt.
The outcome of the race maintained more than a few trends. Sir Winston became the 12th Belmont winner of the last 23 to have had a prior race over the track. The three horses that hit the board Saturday and 15 of the last 18 in the last six runnings had four weeks’ rest coming in. Tacitus’s second-place finish means that a son of Tapit has finished in the money each of the last six years. And at 2.71, Sir Winston was the 15th Belmont winner in the last 16 years with a sub-3.00 dosage index, a figure that uses breeding to measure stamina (lower number) vs. speed.
But Sir Winston’s win also punctuated the strange road that came to an end here on Long Island. It is a road that took Rosario from the east coast to California for part of the winter and then back east. He was always going to come back here, even before the deaths of 27 racehorses since Dec. 26 came to haunt Santa Anita.
The trail included the first-ever race-day disqualification of a Kentucky Derby winner, turning 22 minutes of joy for the connections of Maximum Security into what promises to be a protracted court fight in a long-shot bid to restore their horse’s victory.
The disqualification made Bill Mott a Derby-winning trainer for the first time much the same way that Richard Nixon’s resignation made Gerald Ford a U.S. president – albeit without secret tape recordings.
And instead of an outcome that could have fueled the specious argument that War Of Will would have won the Triple Crown were it not for Maximum Security, it ended with the less likely of two Casse horses to deliver him another classic victory.
Sir Winston’s only two wins before Saturday came on the all-weather surface at Woodbine, where Casse made his biggest mark as a trainer before this year. Woodbine is near Toronto, which is close to hatching another major sports victory in the next few days.
Hmmm. Maybe this last chapter of the 2019 Triple Crown was not so weird.
Streaking Mitole rallies to win Met Mile
If there was any doubt about Mitole graduating from sprints to a mile, he erased it emphatically Saturday.
Staying in touch with the early pace, Mitole (7-2) took the lead in the turn and finished with a three-quarter-length victory in a salty renewal of the $1.2 million Grade 1 Met Mile. His seventh win in a row came at the expense of late-closing favorite McKinzie (8-5), Bob Baffert’s two-time Grade 1 winner that finished second; two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow (5-1), another length back in third; and Promises Fulfilled (17-1), another Grade 1 winner that settled for fourth.
“He can come back, he can go in front,” winning jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. said after his fist-pumping victory. “You can put him between horses, and he always keeps trying his best.”
Mitole’s triumph burnished this as the race of the year so far, certainly for the older division.
“For him to come out on top against this field today under the pressure that he had, he proved what we believed in him the whole time,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who also won this race last year with Bee Jersey. “Winning back-to-back editions of the Met Mile, I can’t even put into words what this means.”
A 4-year-old by Eskendereya, Mitole had never raced farther than six furlongs before last month. That is when he delivered with a 3½-length win in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs, a seven-furlong sprint that came before the rain on Kentucky Derby day.
But in the six victories leading up to Saturday, Mitole was pulling away from his rivals, giving every indication that a mile would be to his liking. About the only thing stopping him was a 10-month layoff that ended in March, something that Asmussen blamed on a “little splint issue he got off the track.”
Asked if the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile would be the target for Mitole’s second half of 2019, Asmussen said, “We weren’t looking past today. We will enjoy this victory and go back to Churchill for a couple of weeks and then regroup and then go on from there.”
Racing notes and comments
Not surprisingly, there was no firm news on whether the Breeders’ Cup would stay at Santa Anita Park this fall or be moved to Churchill Downs. Breeders’ Cup spokesman Jim Gluckson said that nothing has changed; the championships are still planned for Nov. 1 and 2 for Arcadia, Calif., even though 27 racehorses have died as a result of on-track trouble there since Dec. 26. The latest came when Derby Fever was euthanized after a training injury Wednesday. The current Santa Anita meet ends June 23. The Breeders’ Cup board of directors meets the following week. Anyone adding two and two and coming up with the possibility that the board might change the venue would not be alone in thinking that way. As a fellow racing journalist told me, “I’ve already booked my hotel in Louisville. I can always cancel it and not get charged.”
The climax of trainer Chad Brown’s big Saturday here at Belmont Park was – where else? – on the turf. Bricks And Mortar (3-5) came from off a pedestrian pace to take the lead in the stretch and pull away to a 1½-length victory in the $1 million Grade 1 Manhattan, leading a Brown sweep in the 1¼-mile race for older horses. Brown’s third victory of the day came courtesy of a 5-year-old by Giant’s Causeway that has won five in a row, including three Grade 1s. Stable mates Robert Bruce (8-1) and Raging Bull (8-1), also previous Grade 1 winners, completed the Brown trifecta.
Winners drawing away off a hot pace are certain crowd-pleasers on big racing days. That being the case, Brown had two big chunks of eye candy Saturday. Their names were Guarana and Rushing Fall, two fillies that won their Grade 1 races here at Belmont Park by a combined 8¼ lengths. A 14-length winner in the Keeneland slop in her April debut, Guarana (9-5) dueled Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress (3-1) early and then pulled away for a six-length victory in the $700,000 Grade 1 Acorn, a mile race for 3-year-old fillies on a main track that had been very kind to early speed until late in the afternoon. “She reminds me a lot of her father,” Brown said, referring to 2004 horse of the year Ghostzapper. “I expected her to win, but she never had blazing speed in the morning.” She did in the afternoon on Saturday. With José Ortiz riding, the winning time of 1:33.58 consummated a front-running performance founded on fractions of 21.89, 43.99 and 1:08.03 for the first three quarter-miles.
Rushing Fall (7-10) never trailed on her way to winning the $700,000 Grade 1 Just A Game for older fillies and mares racing a mile on the turf. The 4-year-old sired by More Than Ready is now 8-for-9 with the only blemish on her record being a neck loss 13 months ago. “One of the greatest turf mares I’ve trained for sure,” said Brown, who bows to no one on American grass. Taken to a loose lead by jockey Javier Castellano, Rushing Fall took her time setting a pace of 23.91 and 47.21. When pressed by eventual third-place finisher Daddy Is A Legend (4-1), Castellano urged Rushing Fall to quicken, and she won by 2¼ lengths over late closer Beau Recall (4-1). The winning time was 1:41.55. Brown said that “the logical thing to do is get (Rushing Fall) back to 1⅛ miles in the Diana,” a Grade 1 race July 13 at Saratoga.
A long-shot exception to the speed bias delivered in the seven-furlong, $400,000 Grade 1 Woody Stephens – but not without controversy. With Corey Lanerie riding for trainer Vickie Foley, Hog Creek Hustle (18-1) made a late run down the middle of the track to finish a half-length ahead of Nitrous (17-1) and 1¼ lengths from Borracho (15-1) in the sprint for 3-year-olds. But Lanerie rode the winner inward off the turn, causing second betting choice Mind Control (3-1) to check coming into the stretch. Mind Control finished eighth, 4¼ lengths behind, leading stewards to say in a written statement “that the incident did not alter the order of finish.” Lanerie admitted that Mind Control was “bothered a little bit, but the fact he was done helped our cause. If that horse kept running and had gotten a better position, I think they would have disqualified us.” Sired by Overanalyze, Hog Creek Hustle is now 1-for-6 in graded stakes. Rallying from 10th in the 11-horse field, he overcame early fractions of 21.92, 44.53 and 1:08.63 set by eventual fourth-place finisher Strike Silver (31-1) to finish with a winning time of 1:21.12.
After losing by a neck to Stormy Liberal in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, World Of Trouble (2-5) has not trailed since. He shot out of the gate like a cannon, tried to run out from under jockey Manny Franco’s hold and still had plenty left to win by 1¾ lengths in the $400,000 Grade 1 Jaipur Invitational, a six-furlong turf sprint for open company. The 4-year-old colt sired by Kantharos and trained by Jason Servis blazed to early fractions of 21.99 and 43.85 on the way to a winning time of 1:06.37. World Of Trouble easily held off Om (13-1) and Disco Partner (4-1). Om’s claim to fame remains his maiden win five years ago at Del Mar. The horse finishing fifth in that race was American Pharoah.
Biding his time two lengths off the lead during the first half of the race, Mike Smith rode Midnight Bisou (8-5) past pacesetting favorite Come Dancing (4-5) in a commanding stretch drive on the way to a 3½-length victory in the $700,000 Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, an 8½-furlong dirt race for older fillies and mares. It was the fourth victory in as many 2019 starts for the 4-year-old filly sired by Midnight Lute and trained by Asmussen. Come Dancing attracted her betting dollars on the strength of a pair of graded-stakes wins here in New York this spring by an average of 7¼ lengths.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts and via Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.