Everywhere you look the last three days at Belmont Park you're bound to see young women in white dresses and hats, toting a tray of LIQS Cocktail Shots, explaining and trying to sell the colorful concoctions. Late Friday afternoon a few friendly not-so-much cocktail hustlers made a final pass through the owner's box area as the minutes ticked into seconds before one of six stakes on the card.
They sold a handful of shots to some of the sear sucker and sundress set on hand, then spotted Charlie Baker and a friend a few rows up as they settled deep into the backs of their chair just before the 38th running of the Grade 2 True North Stakes. Baker politely declined their offer, with a caveat.
"Come see us after the race," he said, laughing as the field of five including his gelding Joking readied for the load.
A shade more than a minute and eight seconds later the shot girls were nowhere to be found. Baker was still there, albeit only briefly after pumping his fists and raising his arms after Joking got up in the final strides to defeat Dads Caps and give his veteran trainer his first graded stakes victory.
"Super," was how Baker described winning his first graded race, with a 7-year-old gelding he claimed for $20,000 more than two years ago in the dead of winter at Aqueduct. "I was looking for a graded stakes horse forever. ... I never really imaged he would be the first."
The crowd on hand for the Belmont Stakes eve card and those wagering from afar didn't give Joking much of a chance either. He went to the post for the True North at a tick under 10-1, odds that were certainly shorter because of the scratch of Private Zone, against his four opponents. Only Dads caps, at 12-1, was a longer price.
Joking and Manny Franco trailed the field for the opening half as Dads Caps ripped splits of :22.44 and :44.71, shrugging off challenges first from 6/5 favorite Catalina Red and then Holy Boss. Dads Caps opened up in midstretch, just as Franco got Joking interested.
Dads Caps still looked clear 50 yards from home, but Franco stayed busy on Joking and got the Distorted Humor gelding to accelerate in the final jumps to win by a neck in 1:08.04.
Baker reflected on a fairly close call in another graded stakes as he watched the replay in the tunnel after the race. He remembered Moonlight Song leading most of the way in the 2014 Belmont Sprint Championship before yielding late and finishing fourth behind the Brian Lynch-trained Clearly Now.
Ironically the reason for the scratch of Private Zone, one of the best sprinters in recent years, was because the New York Gaming Board decided to enforce a rule about "conduct detrimental to racing" involving illegal drug use. Lynch tested positive for a chemical related to marijuana and surrendered his license earlier in the week.
"I ran in that race here couple years ago with Moonlight Song, he led all the way and then got beat by that good horse for Brian Lynch," Baker said. "And Brian Lynch was out today."
Joking improved to 5-for-8 at Belmont with the True North victory. He's won three of four this year, the lone loss in his seasonal debut when Baker risked him for $62,500 in a March 20 allowance-optional at Aqueduct.
Baker sweated out that race and nobody dropped a claim for the son of Distorted Humor, who started his career for his owner and breeder Darley and trainer Tom Albertrani. Joking first changed hands when David Cannizzo claimed him for $35,000 in September 2013. He made three starts for Cannizzo before Baker claimed him for $20,000.
"When I brought him back I was sweating because I knew he was such a better horse," Baker said of the March 20 race at Aqueduct. "That's why I didn't put him back in for the price (for a $100,000 claiming tag April 10). He was short that day but I knew he was better horse than 62-5. I was sweating when I was taking that shot. I didn't have anything to lose but I knew he was doing better. When I brought him back from that race I started thinking about the True North."
Baker said Joking, always a nervous horse who doesn't handle a change of scenery very well, put on weight this year and credits that with his development at the ripe age of 7.
The New York was one of two graded stakes on the card, the other the Grade 2 New York Stakes for fillies and mares. Chad Brown swept the trifecta in the 1 1/4-mile turf test, sending out last year's Ballston Spa winner Dacita to a mild upset over recent Sheepshead Bay winner Sea Calisi and Guapaza.
Conrad Farm's Theogony kicked off the day's stakes action with a victory in the inaugural $144,000 Rags To Riches Invitational, winning the 12-furlong event on the main track in a rather sharp 2:28.42 for trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux. Silver Mission, a New York-bred colt by Mission Impazible, rolled in the $181,000 Tremont Stakes for 2-year-olds. Bred and owned by Randy Gullat's Twin Creeks Racing and Becky Thomas' Sequel Thoroughbreds, Silver Mission won by 6 ¼ lengths over Hey Mike.
Godolphin's Kareena showed how lively the main track was winning the $147,000 Jersey Girl Stakes going 6 furlongs in 1:07.87, just .21 off champion Artax's track record set in October 1999.
Grass marathon specialist Da Big Hoss capped the day's stakes action with a 1 1/2-length victory over European import Now We Can in the $300,000 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational going 2 miles. The 5-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, winner of the Grade 2 Elkhorn at Keeneland in his last start and the John's Call Stakes last summer at Saratoga, set a course record winning in 3:17.29.