ELMONT, N.Y.--One of his colts was gray. The other has only one eye. They stood out for more than just the obvious physical reasons Saturday evening, because they also provided Todd Pletcher with his best day as a trainer in a Triple Crown race.
Tapwrit (5-1) came from just off the pace and outran front-running favorite Irish War Cry (5-2) by two lengths to win the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes on a sultry afternoon at Belmont Park. Patch (12-1), a horse that was a sentimental long shot because of his missing left eye, finished 7¾ lengths behind in third.
The winning time was 2:30.02, the slowest since Palace Malice won for Pletcher four years ago. He said Tapwrit got the perfect ride from 23-year-old Puerto Rican native José Ortiz, who earned his first victory in a Triple Crown race.
“It was everything we talked about in the paddock before the race,” Pletcher said. “We were hoping he had enough when it came to crunch time. It looked like Irish War Cry still had a little something left, but the last sixteenth he dug down deep.”
After Always Dreaming snapped Pletcher’s 1-for-45 Kentucky Derby slump last month, the seven-time trainer of the year followed that up Saturday with his third victory in the 1½-mile “Test of a Champion,” the longest Grade 1 dirt race in North America. That this was the third time in four years a colt sired by Tapit won this race is a testament to his value as a producer of thoroughbreds that can stay the longer distance.
“He’s a phenomenal sire,” Pletcher said. “The influence of (Tapit’s sire) A.P. Indy in our lifetime is unbelievable, especially his influence over the breed in general and in particular this race.”
“The distance? I was sure he could handle it,” said Ortiz, who also rode Tapwrit to a troubled 6th-place finish in the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby. “We always had a lot of faith in him. Today he showed up.”
Irish War Cry was not expected to lead at every call before the finish, but fractions of 48.66 and 1:38.95 for the first half-mile and mile left jockey Rajiv Maragh no choice but to take over the pace-setting from Meantime.
“It actually wasn’t our plan to be on the lead,” trainer Graham Motion said. “We kind of hoped that somebody else would go for it.”
But Motion was not using Maragh’s front-running tactic an excuse for being the 19th favorite in the last 22 years to come up short in this race.
“He had to go to plan B, and Rajiv did a great job,” he said. “I thought we might be home free, but it’s the Belmont. It’s a tough race.”
After finishing a distant 14th in the Derby, Patch raced along in mid-pack before making his move in the last half-mile, passing Meantime and Senior Investment to hit the board for the fourth time in his five career races.
“He finished up really well,” jockey John Velázquez said. “He can run with a good kick.”
This year’s Belmont was steeped in conspicuous absences, what with Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing being left out of the race, top-ranked Classic Empire getting hurt this past week and the late scratch on race-day of injured Japanese colt Epicharis.
Even one of the 11 horses that started the race failed to finish it. New Triple Crown shooter Hollywood Handsome got cut when he was caught in early traffic, leaving jockey Florent Geroux to lose his irons.
“I got squeezed pretty hard coming into the first turn,” Geroux said. “My horse clipped heels. I almost went down, and I lost my stirrup.”
“That horse had a laceration behind the left knee,” said Dr. Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian. “The trainer (Dallas Stewart) requested an ambulance ride home, so the horse was taken back to the ambulance. It’s a laceration that goes through the skin, but it’s one that can be cleaned up and closed with some surgical staples. It’s a very minor injury, and the horse should be fine.”
Tapwrit himself might not have started the race had Always Dreaming won the Preakness instead of finishing a disappointing eighth.
“We really were hoping that Always Dreaming could take a shot at coming in for a Triple Crown try; that’s every trainer’s ultimate dream,” Pletcher said. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, man, if he wins I’m worried about what we’re going to do with Tapwrit. But it’s all good today.”
Songbird headlines Smith’s five-win day
Last year’s best 3-year-old filly bounced back from the only loss of her career to make an impressive 4-year-old debut and highlight Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith’s memorable, five-win day aboard stakes favorites.
Songbird (1-5) was eyeballed on the turn by upstart Paid Up Subscriber (7-1) before she pulled away in the stretch to win by one length in the $750,000 Ogden Phipps Stakes for older fillies and mares, one of the five other Grade 1 races here Saturday.
For Smith and Songbird it was their first time racing together since their narrow loss to Beholder in a nail-biter of a stretch duel in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita. Trained by fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Songbird’s career earnings moved past $4 million with her 12th victory in 13 career races.
“She is so good out of the gate, and God willing she’ll continue to do so,” Smith said. “She is so much smarter as a 4-year-old. She is one of the most intelligent horses you’ll ever be on. You can ride her with your fingers.”
Smith’s other four victories were with yet another Hall of Fame trainer – Bob Baffert, who did not lose a single race Saturday. Smith opened up on Mor Spirit (5-2) for a 6¼-length victory over pace-setter Sharp Azteca (3-1) in the Grade 1 $1.2 million Met Mile. He patiently rode Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman (2-1) from last place to win by one length over Salty (2-1) in the Grade 1 $700,000 Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Smith cruised to a 3¼-length win on American Anthem (9-5) in the Grade 2 $500,000 Woody Stephens for 3-year-old dirt sprinters. And he started his day by taking West Coast (9-5) from mid-pack to a 3¾-length win over You’re To Blame (3-1) in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes.
“It’s just like the good old days,” Smith said. “Back in New York and getting the opportunity to ride some great horses for Bob and Jerry. It’s just a blast. You point the good ones in the right direction, and they get the job done.”
Four-time jockey of the year Javier Castellano won two graded stakes. He went from worst to first on the turf, making a late charge along the rail aboard Antonoe (3-1) to overtake Sassy Little Lila (8-1) in the Grade 1 $700,000 Just A Game for older females. Earlier he guided 5-year-old War Story (4-1) to a 2½-length win over Sunny Ridge (9-1) and slow pace-setter Tu Brutus (1-2) in the Grade 2 $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational, a 1½-mile dirt race for older horses.
But Castellano was denied a third win when he came up short closing on favored Time Test (6-5), which could not rein in long shot Ascend (27-1) in the Grade 1 $1 million Manhattan. The 5-year-old gelding trained by Graham Motion and ridden by José Ortiz broke through to win his graded-stakes debut, clocked at 21.99 for the last two furlongs of the 1¼-mile turf race. Now 3-for-3 on Lasix, Ascend had previously never won a race worth more than $82,000.
Írad Ortiz Jr. skillfully threaded 5-year-old Disco Partner (9-2) along the rail and then out between horses late to win the Grade 3 $300,000 Jaipur Invitational turf sprint for older horses, charging past runner-up Green Mask (5-2).