On Track with Johnny D: Stars and Stripes Day

The 2017 Belmont Park Spring/Summer meeting is about to expire. Take its last breath. Ride off into the sunset. This weekend is the season’s final hurrah. ‘Last call’ before summer dons its most ancient and elegant finery in the form of Saratoga. Some of us can hardly wait. Others are in worse condition than that–from closing day at the Spa until ‘They’re off’ the following July, they yearn, pine and long for the Saratoga season.

Finally, thankfully, we all can rejoice! According to Twitter feed photos the place looks great. Tall paddock trees are green. Antique grandstand’s trim is red and white. Oklahoma track’s dirt is brown. The sun, too, has returned, apparently no worse for another year’s wear.

But let’s not rush matters. We’ve already waited an eternity for Saratoga to begin again. What’s another week? Besides, we shouldn’t be rude to Belmont Park. The place will develop a complex. Despite its size and majesty it still can’t compete with its summer counterpart. Then again which track can? (OK, let’s get the whole Ginger or Mary Ann discussion out of the way right now: Saratoga or Del Mar?…They’re both fantastic!)

Last Saturday, July 8, Belmont Park presented its Stars and Stripes program. Now, that sounds like an event meant to be celebrated on Fourth of July weekend but rescheduled a week later because Aunt Gertie and Uncle Herbert couldn’t make it. However, that’s not the case at all. Belmont suits purposefully avoided proximity to the ‘Fourth’ because they wanted to celebrate America, again, on a national stage all to themselves. Smart.

If you’re going to attempt to go stride for stride with one of America’s most ‘explosive’ holidays–even a week after the fact–you had better bring your ‘A’ game. Belmont did. And the weather cooperated. Saturday’s 11-race card was entertaining and intriguing for fans and horseplayers alike showcasing outstanding horseflesh–homemade and from across the pond.

Breeders’ Cup again will be held on the left coast the first Friday and Saturday in November but not at Santa Anita. For the first time Del Mar, where the Turf still conveniently Meets the Surf and co-founder Bing Crosby still electronically croons each afternoon, will host the ‘Cup. If you’ve never been to Del Mar racetrack, go there. If you already have visited, return. BC’s your chance. Worrywarts suggest the smaller seaside summer venue won’t capably handle a Breeders’ Cup-sized crowd, but if Keeneland can manage there’s no reason Del Mar can’t. Plus, this is a ‘Home Game’ for BC President and CEO Craig Fravel who cut his industry teeth as Del Mar’s Executive Vice President beginning in 1990.

Of course during Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar there will be racing. And current and emerging stars from Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont (pun intended) will compete for a total of $29 million in purses. We’ve also been informed there will be wagering on Breeders’ Cup, too, including some bread on those Belmont Stars and Stripes winners and losers.

On the eve of Saratoga’s opening, the first Friday in November may seem distant but it’s not. Some Breeders’ Cup competitors will only run two or three times more between now and then. That considered, let’s see what actually happened on Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont Park and how those results might affect what happens in November at Del Mar.

Practical Joke made a definitive statement that he is a quality colt in the Dwyer Stakes for 3-year-olds only at one mile. What’s not as clear is what might be his favorite distance/layout preference. On the surface he seems best as a one-turn miler. But that may be mostly because he looked so good winning the Dwyer. Trainer Chad Brown will try this guy longer around and two turns and he may handle it. After all, ‘Joke didn’t disgrace himself in the Kentucky Derby (5th), Blue Grass (2nd) or Fountain of Youth (2nd) as a less mature 3-year-old at longer distances around two turns. It’s true that all horses have a certain ‘best’ distance and one mile may be Practical Joke’s optimum. Then again, perhaps we haven’t seen the best from him.

Another Dwyer observation is the next chapter in the currently entertaining back and forth between Brown and Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-olds in big races. Pletcher won the Derby with Always Dreaming, Brown the Preakness with Cloud Computing, Pletcher the Belmont with Tapwrit and Brown the Dwyer with Practical Joke.

Mind Your Biscuits made his return to the US from Dubai a winning one with a dominating performance in the Belmont Sprint Championship. For this horseplayer there was some doubt that rookie trainer Chad Summers could have ‘Biscuits ready to fire off a trip to Dubai. That round trip journey sometimes has been a tricky one for veteran trainers to navigate, so concern in this case seemed warranted. It wasn’t. Summers had ‘Biscuits in top shape and the 4-year-old ran away and hid. Drefong, from the Bob Baffert outfit, defeated ‘Biscuits by less than two lengths to win last season’s BC Sprint when both were 3-year-olds. That rematch will be something to see. The rest of the Belmont Sprint Championship field probably isn’t going anywhere special. Unified, a 4-year-old with four wins out of seven starts, was a notable disappointment in the race.

The Belmont Oaks boasted an international sensation in Irish-born, French-raced, Chad Brown-trained Sistercharlie. Second by a length after a ‘rough trip’ in the Group 1 Prix de Diane at Chantilly last out the filly started as the 8-5 favorite despite breaking from the far outside in the mile and one-quarter turf race. She ran well to finish second—by a mere neck–but may have found the distance in a foreign land a smidge too short for her best. New Money Honey, winner of the BC Juvenile Filly Turf, continued a successful career with her fourth win in six tries, including a perfect 3-for-3 over the Belmont grass. Like Sistercharlie, French-raced Uni lagged early and closed well to finish third. Trainer Brown dominated the race by saddling the first three finishers. It’s great to see New Money Honey develop and mature and we look forward to watching the Euro invaders acclimate and improve for Brown.

The 131st running of the Suburban Handicap—the ninth race on the Stars and Stripes card–was considered by many to include a cinch, a pick six single and free bingo square in the form of Shaman Ghost. After all, this year the 5-year-old son of Ghostzapper already had won the Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special. Who in this field was going to defeat him now? Certainly not Keen Ice. Who? Keen Ice. You remember him. His last win came in August of 2015 when he rained on American Pharoah’s Travers parade. Since then he’s mostly been third or fourth (beaten double digits) in Grade 1 races. Besides the fact that Todd Pletcher trains him and that he’d recently worked two bullet five-eighths, there wasn’t much to suggest he’d win The Suburban. Matt King Coal was the logical second choice because he figured to be on the lead alone early and if he could carry his speed a mile and one-quarter Shaman Ghost might not catch him. But Keen Ice? Really? And in the end it wasn’t even close. As expected ‘Cole took the early lead. ‘Ghost pressed him into the stretch where the former stopped like he’d suddenly been deprived oxygen. ‘Ghost then briefly took over but had no response when ‘Ice came calling.

This is all irrelevant in the big picture. Arrogate, who figures to race a week from Saturday at Del Mar in the San Diego Handicap, is the world’s best horse. He’s handily whipped Keen Ice, Shaman Ghost and everyone else. If he makes it to the Breeders’ Cup Classic starting gate he’ll be a cinch, a pick six single and free bingo square. Where have we heard that before?

If you’re still reading, fantastic! Because what we have here in the Belmont Derby at a mile and one-quarter on turf is a real Oscar Performance. Like Belmont Oaks winner New Money Honey Oscar Performance last year won the most coveted Breeders’ Cup turf race in his division. Also like her he’s 3-for-3 on Belmont turf. And, again like her, he defeated a pair of European invaders on Stars and Stripes Day–Irish-bred and French-raced Called To The Bar was second and Irish-raced Homesman, fifth in Ascot’s King George V last out, finished third. One area where Oscar Performance and New Money Honey deviate is sex. (That didn’t come out exactly right.) An explanation: New Money Honey is a filly. Oscar Performance is a ridgeling—a male animal with one or both testicles undescended.

Whether it’s one or both gonads in hiding, the condition doesn’t appear to hinder ‘Oscar’s performance. He goes to the front and improves his position. Wire-to-wire. Pants on fire! A serious Belmont Derby handicapping question surrounded ‘Oscar’s ability to effectively carry his speed a mile and one-quarter. But that’s why they offer odds. In hindsight 5.50-to-1 that an unopposed Oscar Performance would get the distance was extremely generous. (For the record, I hate ‘hindsight.’ He’s never wrong!)

So, before they officially call time of death for the 2017 Belmont Spring/Summer meeting there’s still time to get some wagering licks in. Although don’t expect to catch many headliners in action. Several of them recently performed on Stars and Stripes Day. The rest are waiting for the Spa to open. Just like the rest of us.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Stars and Stripes Day

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