ELMONT, N.Y. -- They used to call it Super Saturday, then, it became Breeders' Cup Preview Day. Nowadays, stripped of title and ceremony and starved for both marketing and promotion, it still serves the purpose of original intent, which is to propel the leading figures in several of racing's divisions toward various races in the ever expanding Breeders' Cup and remains the best single day of the racing year in New York.
This is a very hard race. I think he's got what Tesio called 'morale.' He's tough minded.
”-- Art Preston, owner of Flat Out
The post-Saratoga racing landscape in New York remains charred and barren while those in political power, having seized control by decree, stumble and puzzle over still-incomplete plans for the future of the New York Racing Association. But in the wake of several long-overdue, overwhelmingly welcome changes in medication rules imposed last week the attention returned on Saturday to the racetracks over which six stakes races, five of them Grade 1, were run at Belmont Park, each of which will impact a Breeders' Cup race next month at Santa Anita.
New York may have been forsaken by the Breeders' Cup, last run here in 2005, but the Big Apple remains the autumn's most important contributor to its depth and breadth.
By the time the dust settled on a crisp autumn afternoon on Saturday, much of the 29th Breeders' Cup had begun to gain shape and form. John Velazquez signed his name to another piece of history with a remarkable three-Grade 1 afternoon and trainer Bill Mott left his name writ large in advance of the festivities in Arcadia.
Nothing could possibly be more appropriate to the event than the presence of the defending Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner and runner-up in the 9-furlong, $400,000 Beldame Invitational, the afternoon's first Grade 1. They finished in the same order in which they arrived at the wire at Churchill Downs last November, but with little drama as Mike Smith sent the reigning champion after the front-running It's Tricky at midpoint of the turn and took a firm hold after Royal Delta had opened a 9 1/2- length margin before stopping the teletimer in 1:48.80 while traveling over a track labeled "good." If horses tend to mirror seasonal form cycles year to year, Royal Delta, never more impressive than she was in the Beldame, is again at her best as two undefeated champions, My Miss Aurelia and Awesome Feather, await what will be a keenly anticipated renewal of the Ladies Classic, certainly the race of the day at Santa Anita.
"You basically saw what it really was; it was extremely impressive," Smith said afterward. "I'm not sure, but she was really leading up to this kind of a performance. If you look at her works they were much different than her works before the race [Personal Ensign] in Saratoga, so whatever [trainer Bill Mott] is doing, he's doing it right and she's coming around at the right time."
"She was much the best today," Mott said of his star 4-year-old. "Just a very impressive performance. She schooled well here this week. It's not as hectic [at Belmont] as Saratoga. She was very good going to the gate, whereas last time she was a little hot going to the gate. We did a couple of things differently with her as far as the warm up went, so it worked out nicely. She was certainly good today."
"She's an awesome filly. We'll be there," owner Benjamin Leon, who purchased Royal Delta for $5 million after her Breeders' Cup win last fall, said in anticipation of the Breeders' Cup.
Royal Delta set the tone on the day formerly known at Super Saturday. Another Mott-trained horse provided a very grand finale.
It had been a year since Flat Out had won a race, which happened to be the 2011 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Then trained by Scooter Dickey, he subsequently finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic and floundered last winter in Florida before being sent to Mott. In new hands, he finished second in the Monmouth Cup and third in the Whitney Invitational at Saratoga, his form improving steadily until Saturday, when the 6-year-old delivered an explosive rally beneath Joel Rosario that barely took him past front-running and game Stay Thirsty to a final-stride, neck victory in the $1-million, 94th Jockey Club Gold Cup. The running time for 10 furlongs, 2:33.73, will not provide a high point in the history of speed figures. The rally was breathtaking.
Though Flat Out is unlikely to threaten Kelso's five-straight Gold Cup wins recorded between 1960 and '64, Saturday's white-knuckle triumph puts him in a fraternity of back-to-back winners of this race that includes, among others, Shuvee (1970, '71), Slew o' Gold ('83, 84), Crème Fraiche ('86, '87), Skip Away ('96, '97) and Curlin (2008, '09). He is also very much a player in next month's Breeders' Cup Classic.
"He likes it a lot here," Flat Out's owner, Art Preston said. "I do, too, now! This is a very hard race. I think he's got what Tesio called 'morale.' He's tough minded."
"He ran a huge race last time," Mott said. "You couldn't have asked the horse to run any better than he did the last time out. He's a relatively fresh horse; he had a little break late spring, and he was up for it today. It looked like [Joel Rosario] let him pick off a couple of horses on the backside, and he was doing it under a hold. That was a good thing. He hadn't asked him to run. The horse was just striding out and picking up horses. That other horse [Stay Thirsty] fought on pretty well. Todd [Pletcher] had him ready today; we just had ours a little more ready. And it wasn't by much. Both horses ran huge races and you have to give a lot of credit to the horse who ran second. He ran his butt off."
Mott, who has enjoyed great success in the Breeders' Cup including last year's wins with Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer in the Classic, noted that both finished second in these races a year ago. "It kind of worries you a little bit when you win the prep race," he said. "I don't know if that's a good sign. But I guess Cigar was able to win [the Gold Cup] and go on and win the Breeders' Cup."
Between the Mott-authored overture and finale, marked by Velazquez' solos
Jersey Town finished third in the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap a year ago and was unplaced in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill. He may be a more potent force this time after running past Shackleford and winning the $400,000 Kelso's 32nd running by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:35.24, the sparingly raced 6-year-old's first win from four starts this season. Trainer Barclay Tagg will point Jersey Town to the Dirt Mile.
At 8-1 Jersey Town's win beneath Javier Castellano was a mild upset even by Tagg's estimate.
We were second last year. We were keen to have another toot at it this year. She's shown up today, hasn't she?
”-- Roger Varian, trainer of Nahrain
"I didn't think I could beat [To Honor and Serve, who was fourth of seven] when he's at his best. He looks like a monster horse when he's at his best. [Jersey Town] just needed to have a couple of races in a row before this one. I thought he needs that kind of thing. He's a real hefty horse. He needs to train hard, but he really doesn't have the legs and feet to train hard on. You have to hit a happy medium and things were just coming together real nicely for him this fall, so we took a shot at it."
It also appeared that trainer Mike Hushion and owner Barry Schwartz, who has been known to visit a betting clerk, were taking a shot with The Lumber Guy, a 3-year-old who had not started since May and on his own would have been a far more robust price in the betting pools than the 2-1 he brought while coupled with the more highly regarded Sean Avery.
The Lumber Guy was not a complete surprise. He won the Jerome last spring at Aqueduct, but there was no real evidence that he was up to a Grade 1 sprint off a five-month layoff. Yet, the 3-year-old peeled back a new layer with a resolute, off-the-pace 1 1/4-length victory over Caixa Electronica in the $400,000 Vosburgh, earning a Grade 1 title and Breeders' Cup opportunity. He ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.22 with Velazquez astride and becomes an element in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, often the event's most daunting challenge to handicappers, or the Dirt Mile.
"Why not," Hushion said when asked about his Breeders' Cup plans. "We'll talk it over and look over the competition."
"It's a question of which [race]." Schwartz said. "The Sprint or the Mile. I'm inclined to think he's a Miler."
Drama is inevitable on such days and there was drama both in the final yards of the $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational for fillies and mares and in the aftermath, that in the form of a long inquiry that jeopardized Nahrain's half-length win over Zagora, who was just a nose better than Dream Peace.
The result stood and the 5-year-old mare, runner-up in the Filly & Mare Turf last year, will have another opportunity after having failed to finish better than third this year from three starts in Ireland and England.
No American turf course is as accommodating to European horses as those at Belmont and the recent wet weather here resulted in yielding ground on Saturday, perfect conditions for Nahrain, who overcame traffic and a determined Zagora in the Flower Bowl. With Velazquez timing his move perfectly, she covered 10 furlongs in 2:05.65 after having tracked a very slow pace. The stewards determined that a brush with Dream Prospect leaving the turn was of no consequence.
"We're in [the Breeders' Cup] now, aren't we?" trainer Roger Varian said. "We were second last year. We were keen to have another toot at it this year. She's shown up today, hasn't she?"
The Phipps Stable has not been prominent in recent Breeders' Cups but Point of Entry put the old-line New Yorkers in the frame with a resolute, 1 3/4-length victory over the Irish challenger Treasure Beach in the $600,000 Joe Hirsh Turf Classic Invitational, running 12 furlongs beneath Velazquez in 2:33.73, the 4-year-old's fifth straight win and third successive Grade 1.
Trainer Shug McGaughey, who in 1993 sent out six winners on Breeders' Cup Preview Day, will ship a formidable racehorse, one good enough to overcome unfavorable conditions, to California for the Turf.
"I was afraid going into today after all the rain and with a big, heavy horse like him, it might not be his race. I wasn't concerned with the way it was unfolding. I thought Treasure Beach might be the horse to beat over this turf. I was a little surprised at their tactics when they went on. And then when they opened up around there and carried us out, I was a little bit nervous. I don't think this was his race today, but he was good enough to win."
Breeders' Cups in California have often been hazardous to Eastern horses, but on the day formerly known as Breeders' Cup Preview Day, viewed live by all of 8,639 souls, there were no flukes or winners likely to be second-guessed. The question of how this plays in the dessert remains to be answered five weeks hence.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.