It’s the question being asked by most handicappers when they see his name among the list of possible starters for the Belmont Stakes—“Who in the world is Bandua?”
Who in the world, indeed, since unlike most Belmont Stakes contenders, Bandua has not been racing in the United States. Instead, he’s been racing across the globe in Ireland, where he’s gone 2-for-2 to establish himself as an up-and-coming colt with plenty of promise but no experience whatsoever on dirt or in large fields, two variables that he’ll face for the first time at Belmont Park.
But here’s the thing: Bandua isn’t your typical European shipper for a Triple Crown race, and his trainer—Dermot Weld—has remarkably found success with this ambitious strategy in the past.
If you don’t follow racing in Europe on a close basis, you can be forgiven if Weld’s name doesn’t ring a bell. But from his base in Ireland, Weld has been among the most successful trainers in the sport for decades, with a list of big-race wins that reads like a list of Europe’s most prestigious races.
Whenever Weld ships a horse to compete in North America, it’s wise to pay attention. Through the years, Weld has won 11 graded stakes races in North America, most memorably sending out Go and Go to upset the 1990 Belmont Stakes. The colt’s previous start? A fourth-place finish in the Derby Trial Stakes (Ire-II) at Leopardstown, hardly a typical prep race for the third jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown.
Only time will tell if Bandua can replicate his Weld-trained predecessor by winning the Belmont Stakes, but the potential is certainly there. Whereas Go and Go was bred like a European turf star, Bandua was actually bred in the U.S. and boasts a reasonably dirt-oriented pedigree, being by the Grade 1-winning sprinter The Factor out of a mare by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
Racing in the silks of Calumet Farm, Bandua made his debut on April 15th in a 1 ¼-mile maiden race at Cork in Ireland. Due to rain-softened heavy ground, no starting gate was employed and Bandua came away from the informal start racing third in a field of four, about four or five lengths off the lead. However, Bandua responded strongly when asked to run in the homestretch, pulling away under encouragement from jockey Declan McDonogh to win by 9 ½ lengths.
On May 5th, Bandua returned to action going fifty yards farther in a rated race at Cork, where he encountered “soft to heavy” ground and just three rivals. This time, a starting gate was put to use, and while Bandua was a little slow exiting his stall, he quickly recovered to settle in second place before taking command in the homestretch and edging away under urging to win by just under two lengths.
With two wins going 1 ¼ miles or farther, Bandua seems like a colt that won’t have any trouble with the 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes. The bigger question is whether he can be effective on dirt while facing a larger field in a race that should unfold at a substantially quicker pace than he’s accustomed to. After all, the winning times in Bandua’s first two starts were 2:42.70 and 2:26.49, times that can be partly attributed to heavy going and partly attributed to slow paces. It could also be a sign of slow horses since Bandua has yet to face top-class company, but the jury is still out in that regard.
Obviously Bandua has questions to answer, but with his dirt pedigree and his proven trainer, he does loom as an interesting longshot candidate in the Belmont Stakes.