With a “Win and You’re In” berth to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) on the line, there was more at stake in Saturday’s $350,000 Belmont Sprint Championship (gr. II) at Belmont Park than the winner’s share of a hefty purse.
Whether that fact played in the minds of the jockeys down the homestretch can’t be said, but they certainly rode for all they were worth and guided their mounts to put on a memorable show that befitted the race’s “Win and You’re In” billing.
For a six-horse field, the seven-furlong sprint produced a surprising amount of excitement and drama. The early pace was modest enough as Shaft of Light sprinted clear through a :22.22 opening quarter-mile, but Eye Luv Lulu soon moved up to pressure him, and the second quarter in :22.62—which produced a :44.84 half-mile—was a bit more testing. Sitting chilly in third while saving ground and eyeing the battle ahead was the accomplished Whitmore, while favored Limousine Liberal—cutting back in distance off an excellent third-place effort in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I)—was reserved back in fifth place.
Turning for home, everything started happening at once. Shaft of Light began to tire, and as he did, he drifted slightly off the rail. Ricardo Santana, Jr., riding Whitmore, spotted the gap and urged his mount to sneak through on the inside, but there was just barely enough room and Whitmore appeared to hit the rail, which caused him to bounce outward and bump hard with Shaft of Light, who was thus carried out sharply. Meanwhile, Limousine Liberal was attempting to split horses from the back of the pack, but it was at that moment that Shaft of Light came to the outside, bumping hard with Limousine Liberal and forcing the latter to collide, in turn, with longshot Lewisfield.
Despite this rough entrance to the homestretch, all the horses stayed on their feet and Whitmore—none the worse for wear—gamely set off to reel in Eye Luv Lulu, who had inherited the lead. But Limousine Liberal had likewise shrugged off the bumping and was rallying fast on the far outside. Following six furlongs in 1:08.88, Whitmore forged to a narrow lead, but in the shadow of the wire Limousine Liberal rallied past, stuck his neck in front, and prevailed in gutsy fashion while stopping the clock in 1:21.53.
A steward’s inquiry was conducted to analyze the incident at the top of the stretch, but no changes were made and the results were allowed to stand. Certainly Limousine Liberal was a deserving winner, and it was a breakthrough victory considering that he had previously gone 0-for-7 in races outside of Kentucky. But while it’s nice to see him score a major win on the road, his affinity for Kentucky—and specifically Churchill Downs, where he’s gone 6-for-8—could prove to be more valuable given that the Breeders’ Cup Sprint will be held at Churchill this year. If you’re looking for a “horse for the course” angle, Limousine Liberal might be your play!