JC Gold Cup
It was hardly a surprise to see Bill Mott standing in the winner's circle after one of the major Grade 1 stakes on Super Saturday at Belmont Park.
Mott was the youngest trainer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame when the doors opened for him at the youthful age of 45 in 1998. Best known for training the fabulous Cigar, he has saddled so many other stakes winners the New York Racing Association needed a page and a half of its media guide to list them.
Twice he's won the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup -- the centerpiece of five Grade 1 stakes at Belmont Park on Super Saturday -- including last year with Flat Out.
He won last year's $400,000 Beldame, another Super Saturday fixture, with Royal Delta.
He returned for both races on Saturday with Flat Out and Royal Delta, who were each sent off as the betting favorite, yet neither was responsible for Mott's trip to the winner's circle.
It was the afterthought, Ron the Greek, whose 21-1 shocker in the Jockey Club Gold Cup generated the biggest surprise of all on a day when Belmont Park served up its biggest slate of Breeders' Cup preps.
"Once Royal Delta lost [she was second as a heavy 3-10 favorite in the Beldame]," Mott said, "I figured anything could happen."
It certainly did.
Mott said he considered cutting Ron the Greek back to mile races to enhance his late kick, but the owners of the 6-year-old horse wanted to give him another crack at punching a ticket to the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Classic.
For all intents and purposes, Ron the Greek just as easily could have raced in the Grade 2 Kelso on the Super Saturday card. Mott said he considered cutting Ron the Greek back to mile races to enhance his late kick, but the owners of the 6-year-old horse (Nils Brous, Adam Wachtel, Jack Hammer and Gary Barber) wanted to give him another crack at punching a ticket to the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I didn't mind that," Mott said.
It took a little less than two minutes for them to be proved right. Ron the Greek didn't just capture the Gold Cup, he won it in a landslide. He pulled away in the stretch to record a lopsided 6¾-length victory, with Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice finishing a distant second and Flat Out checking in third in a failed attempt to win the race for a third straight time.
Ron the Greek's recent form explained the inflated odds. In his last three starts, he was fourth in the Woodward and Whitney and third in the Stephen Foster, losing by a combined 21¾ lengths.
Yet his accomplishments on his best days, when he won races like the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster in 2012 and the Sunshine Millions Classic in January, rationalized such a huge effort on a big stage. In covering the mile and a quarter in 1:59.70, Ron the Greek notched the fastest clocking in the JC Gold Cup since 2002, when Evening Attire needed only 1:59.58.
"This is THE Ron the Greek today," Mott said. "This is the same type of race he ran in the Sunshine Millions, the same type of race he ran in California when he won the Santa Anita Handicap. Every once in a while, he'll throw one of these. I can't determine when, but he did it today."
On one level, that victory in Santa Anita's Big 'Cap should bode well for Ron the Greek's chances in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at the Arcadia, Calif., track. Yet Mott warned that Santa Anita's main track can change like a chameleon from week to week, favoring speedsters then closers. That quirk might explain why Ron the Greek finished fourth to the speedy Fort Larned in last year's BC Classic, and why Flat Out will most likely be making a return trip west.
Flat Out, who was third in last year's Classic, and Ron the Greek will add to the supporting cast at Santa Anita that will try to thwart Game On Dude's bid for Horse of the Year honors by defeating him in the year's richest race. Others like Palace Malice, Fort Larned, winner of Saturday's Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, and Mucho Macho Man and Paynter, who ran 1-2 in Saturday's Awesome Again at Santa Anita, are also among the top candidates.
Meanwhile, it may be back to the drawing board for Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who was last in the Gold Cup, and Whitney winner Cross Traffic, who beat only Orb. To see either of them in the Classic would be a surprise. Not a huge surprise, but a surprise nonetheless. Just like a Super Saturday without a winner's circle appearance by Bill Mott.