Saturday afternoon and into the early evening offered thoroughbred racing fans a chance to see many of the sport’s best horses compete in 10 graded stakes on both coasts with many of the participants heading to the Breeders Cup next.
Conditions at Belmont Park were hardly ideal for graded stakes, but the events proved somewhat revealing.
In the first Grade I event of the day, Ectot led throughout to capture the $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic while 1-5 favorite Flintshire settled for second over the yielding course. Ectot, who was 17th in the 2014 edition of the Arc de Triomphe at Longhamp, recorded his first victory in the United States and his first tally in more than two years.
Flintshire was reserved off the pace in his customary fashion and launched his bid entering the far turn and loomed a serious threat approaching the eighth pole but failed to sustain that bid and settled for second while beaten three lengths. It was his first setback in four starts this year, although the yielding going may have played a role in the outcome.
One race later in the Grade II, $300,000 Gallant Bloom Stakes for fillies and mares on the sloppy main track, Paulassilverlining surged to command turning for home and outkicked Quezon and Wavell Avenue to score by a length in 1:15.92 for the 6 1/2 furlongs.
Paulassilverlining has won four of seven starts this year and seven of 16 lifetime tries for trainer Michelle Nevin and she is perfect in three starts at Belmont. Quezon raced well to gain the place spot while defending Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Sprint champion Wavell Avenue saved ground on the turn and rallied inside late for third in a good try.
Two races later in the Grade I, $500,000 Vosburgh for older male sprinters on the main track, a race that lost some of its luster when AP Indian scratched to avoid the off going and head to Keeneland next Saturday for the Phoenix, Joking rallied from far back and widest of all to score by two lengths in 1:09.18.
A seven-year-old Distorted Humor gelding owned and trained by Charlton Baker, Joking benefited from an early speed duel that doomed XY Jet and rallied widest of all to overhaul Stallwalin’ Dude in the lane for his third straight stakes score and fourth straight win overall. He now owns a 10-8-8 slate and $845,000 bankroll from 39 lifetime outings and is clearly peaking at the right time.
Then one race later in the Grade I, $350,000 Beldame for fillies and mares on the main track, Unbridled Forever easily lived up to her role as the 3-5 favorite when she rallied from midpack and widest of all to score by two lengths in 1:50.64 for the one-turn one-mile and one-eighth.
Winner of the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in April, Unbridled Forever has won three of five starts this year and now owns a 5-3-3 slate and $1.4 million bankroll from 13 lifetime outings for trainer Dallas Stewart. She will head west to the Breeders Cup Distaff as a solid contender, although the two best mates in this division are already there.
In fact, the best older male and older female runners were on display later that afternoon at Santa Anita in a pair of lucrative Grade I preps for the Breeders Cup.
In the $300,000 Awesome Again at nine furlongs on the main track, California Chrome lived up to his role as the 2-5 favorite and the best horse of any age in the land when he shook off an early bid from Dortmund and edged clear late to a three-length score in 1:48.05.
A five-year-old Lucky Pulpit stallion out of the Maryland-bred mare Love the Chase, California Chrome remained perfect in six starts on the year and pushed his seasonal earnings past $7 million and padded his record North American bankroll past $13.4 million on the strength of 15 wins from 24 career outings.
Perhaps more importantly, California Chrome maintained his reputation as the best horse in the country and will head to the Breeders Cup Classic as the solid favorite for that title and his second horse of the year honor in the last three years. Of course, the unbeaten Songbird and turf star Tepin will still have something to say about the sport’s highest annual award.
Then two races later in the Zenyatta, Stellar Wind drew alongside Beholder entering the far turn and prevailed over the odds-on favorite by a neck in 1:41.80 for the one-mile and one-sixteenth on the main track.
A four-year-old Virginia-bred daughter of Curlin trained by John Sadler, Stellar Wind recorded her second straight Grade I triumph over Beholder and now owns seven wins and $1.35 million banked from 11 career outings. Last year’s champion three-year-old filly and top Mid-Atlantic-bred runner of any age could potentially usurp Beholder as champion older filly or mare if she were to better her again in the Breeders Cup Distaff.
Beholder was easily division champ last year when she won all five of her starts, but she has now suffered three straight setbacks and two to Stellar Wind. Beholder has won 17 of 25 career outings and been worse than second only twice while earning over $5 million, but she is heading into the Breeders Cup Distaff as the favorite with considerable vulnerability.