Weekend at Belmont Park

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The dust is long since settled, the crowds gone and the comparisons, critiques and criticisms in high gear. The most memorable edition of the Belmont Stakes in nearly four decades came and went last weekend and with it a Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah.

The weekend on Long Island featured plenty of other top-shelf racing. The newly named Belmont Stakes Racing Festival went from Thursday to Saturday – apparently no stars to be found Sunday at Big Sandy – and featured 16 stakes leading up to the centerpiece.

Big Honor

Plenty went on during those three days and perhaps even more was overshadowed when American Pharoah solidified his place in history with a dominating performance in the Belmont to sweep the Triple Crown.

Not coincidentally the race that’s nearly as historical and with the second largest purse on the weekend, the $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap, featured a performance to remember from Honor Code.

The expectations for Honor Code were lumped on his withers from the moment he dashed through the slop at Saratoga to break his maiden on one of the last days of the meeting and on the last day of August in 2013. He came from way back that day and considering his connections and pedigree, he instantly became a classics contender.

Honor Code never made the classics and barely made it to the races after his 2-year-old season that included that maiden win, a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Champagne and a victory in the Grade 2 Remsen. He’s been a lesson in perseverance for his co-owner Will Farish and trainer Shug McGaughey, who amazingly hadn’t ever won the Met Mile.

“This is the race we all want,” Farish said as he made his way down the steps from the podium above the winner’s circle. “Met winners make stallions.”

Honor Code was already a pretty good stallion prospect before the Met Mile.

After he destroyed a field that included Tonalist, Private Zone, Wicked Strong, Bayern and others, running 1 mile in 1:33.18 and his final quarter-mile in high 22 and change, he went to the next level. Considering his pedigree – from the final crop of the great A.P. Indy out of a granddaughter to Hall of Famer Serena’s Song – it’s not a stretch to say he might right now be the best prospect anywhere in the world.

“The way he did it was so spectacular,” McGaughey said. “From the quarter-pole on I was watching and thought, ‘he can’t make all that up.’ Of course I’ve said that three times before.”

McGaughey was referring to three of Honor Code’s four victories when he came from way back – the Saratoga maiden score, an allowance-optional last fall at Aqueduct and the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap earlier this year. He threw in a clunker last time in the Grade 2 Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, but McGaughey and jockey Javier Castellano blamed the racetrack. McGaughey also said the scenario – a pretty modest pace for the 1 1/16-mile trip – probably didn’t suit his colt.

The pace of the Met Mile suited Honor Code perfectly.

Castellano was content to let the big dark bay lope along toward the back of the field as multiple Grade 1 winner Private Zone drilled the opening splits in :22.42 and :44.92 with Bayern, Pants On Fire, Bay of Plenty and Tamarcuz giving chase. Tonalist, who spoiled California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid last year and unbeaten in three prior starts at Belmont, moved his way up to fourth through 6 furlongs in a razor sharp 1:08.74.

Honor Code was in gear by that point. He picked off rivals while running very wide and in the clear, but still had plenty to do outside in upper stretch. Private Zone didn’t give it up easily, either, and still led outside the furlong grounds just ahead of Tamarkuz and Tonalist. Honor Code was simply too good and his opponents too softened up from their early work to offer any resistance inside the eighth pole and Castellano hand rode him to the wire.

“From the eighth pole I wondered,” McGaughey said. “When he was getting to horses as quick as he was, I saw him get to Tonalist, I knew we had him beat. I thought we were OK at that point. It’s like Javier said, ‘at the eighth pole I ran by them all.’ “

Honor Code is McGaughey’s first winner of the Met Mile in his Hall of Fame career and was his first starter in the race since 2009. He came awfully close to winning in 1989 as the entry of Seeking the Gold and Dancing Spree were outrun in the last few jumps by Proper Reality. He was second in 2003 with Saarland and third with Easy Goer (1990), Our Emblem (1995) and Accelerator (1998).

The importance of winning it was not lost on McGaughey.

“It’s a race I’ve held in high esteem for a long time,” he said. “I’ve just been beat in it a couple times and this is a big thrill for me.”

 

Toast this win

Horsemen winning races using Saratoga as either a primary or even secondary base of operations is nothing new, so it comes as no surprise that seven of the winners over the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival spent some time upstate this spring.

Wedding Toast, who made easy work of champion and heavily favored Untapable in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, was one of those seven. The 5-year-old daughter of Street Sense won the $1 million Phipps gate-to-wire under Jose Lezcano, defeating Untapable by 5 lengths to get the Grade 1 stakes underway Saturday.

Unlike the other six winners who trained for at least part of the spring over Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track before their wins last weekend – a group that includes Grade 1 Knob Creek Manhattan winner Slumber – Wedding Toast was tucked away in the quiet of Darley’s nearby Greentree Training Center. She’s trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who was quick to credit his team upstate for the work they’ve done this spring with racing’s latest Grade 1 winner.

“My brother Neal and his wife, Trish, up at Saratoga have done a real good job with her. She’s been up there training,” McLaughlin said.

Wedding Toast breezed twice over Greentree’s synthetic track in preparation for the Phipps, a couple strong half miles two and three weeks after she won the Grade 2 Ruffian at Belmont. She was better in the Phipps than she was in the Ruffian, defeating the favorite who was coming off a sharp victory of her own in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom back in April at Oaklawn Park.

She was allowed to be better thanks to a heads-up ride from Jose Lezcano, who acted on an inclination that there wasn’t going to be much early pace in the Phipps and took the initiative. She ran quick early, but without pressure and when it came time for last year’s champion 3-year-old filly to try and get by Wedding Toast already had the jump on her and sprinted home.

“Nobody wanted to go,” Lezcano said, almost puzzled that he was alone on the lead.

Wedding Toast was one of four winners during the Festival for McLaughlin, who send out Elraazy and Arhad to maiden victories and last year’s Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes winner Cavorting to a win in Friday’s Jersey Girl Stakes. Heading into Wednesday’s card at Belmont McLaughlin is tied for third in the trainer standings with 14 wins on the meet from 45 starters.

 

Wipeout to winner

Sandwiched. Squeezed. Crushed. Whatever word used to describe what happened to Curalina at the start of the Grade 1 Acorn might not do it justice.

Completely wiped out when a handful of her 11 rivals swerved in and out after the break, Curalina and John Velazquez found themselves in last place before the Acorn field ran a sixteenth of a mile.

“Oh my God. Did you see that start?” said Aron Wellman, the head of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, as he watched the replay. “Oh my God. I didn’t realize. Johnny said she got crushed. That’s as bad as it gets.”

Curalina and Velazquez recovered well enough to zip up to fifth place after previously unbeaten Promise Me Silver hung a quarter-mile up in :22.89. They raced just off the pace from there, eventually moving up to third as By The Moon took command turning for home.

By The Moon, who gave a pretty good indication of the depth of the Acorn field as a 30-1 longshot despite being a Grade 1 winner, looked home free inside the 3/16ths pole as she opened up under Jose Ortiz. They were still in front inside the eight pole, but Curalina and Wonder Gal cut into the gap in the sixteenth. Curalina had enough to get past, won by a neck in 1:35.15, while By The Moon held second and Wonder Gal finished third.

“I just can’t get over the break,” Wellman said. “For her to overcome what she did is just nothing short of extraordinary.”

Curalina’s always seemed destined for something extraordinary. She was second in her career debut early in last year’s Saratoga meet and was entered back in the Grade 1 Spinaway on the final weekend of the season. The daughter of Curlin didn’t get to run that day, or the rest of the year for that matter.

Wellman said she suffered from some bone bruising. Thinking she might be a Kentucky Oaks-type filly, he and trainer Todd Pletcher decided to give her all the time she needed. They missed the Oaks, too, but might have a filly on the rise for the second half of 2015. Curalina is now 3-for-3 this year, with a maiden win at Gulfstream and an allowance-optional on the Kentucky Oaks undercard.

“She’s always acted like she could be a special filly,” Wellman said. “We did right by her, thinking she was a Kentucky Oaks filly. We decided to be a little more conservative, give her a little more time, got her maiden broken down at Gulfstream on Florida Derby Day. We just wanted to get a little more seasoning into her in the a-other-than on Oaks Day.”

The Grade 1 Mother Goose – in three weeks June 27 – probably comes back a little quick for Curalina, who will most likely show up next back at Saratoga.

“This was a monster effort,” Wellman said. “She got crushed coming out of the gate, made a big middle move to range within contention. They went 45 and 2 to the half, I’d venture to say she went sub 45. And then she was so wide turning for home and four wide in the stretch and to run down a class filly like By The Moon, who is a Grade 1 winner in her own right, she looked like she was home free at the eighth pole. All the credit goes to Johnny. He is just so strong and the filly was there for him. Todd’s done such a brilliant job bringing her along. We couldn’t be happier.

“She’ll run all day. She won by 8 and change going two turns at Churchill, so we’re going to savor this, pray that she comes out of it healthy. The logical thought process would be Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama. She’ll have plenty of time, she deserves it.”

Curalina was one of six winners for Pletcher during the Festival and helped him earn the “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons Award for outstanding trainer. Using a 5-3-2-1 points system, Pletcher finished the three days with 44 points. He also won Friday’s Grade 2 True North with Rock Fall and Saturday’s Grade 2 Brooklyn Invitational with Coach Inge.

 

Belmont Festival Notes: Chad Brown, who sent out Slumber to an upset win in the Grade 1 Knob Creek Manhattan a little more than an hour before American Pharoah won the Belmont, finished second in the trainer standings. He also won Friday’s 2-mile Belmont Gold Cup Invitational with Innovation Economy and Saturday’s Grade 2 Woody Stephens with March. …The weekend featured a pair of $250,000 stakes for 2-year-olds. Ten Broeck Farm’s Moment Is Right won Thursday’s Astoria for trainer Wesley Ward and Richard Raven’s and Patricia’s Hope LLC’s Cocked And Loaded won Friday’s Tremont for trainer Larry Rivelli. … The other stakes winners on the weekend were Regis Racing’s Zindaya in Thursday’s Intercontinental for trainer Christophe Clement, European import Waltzing Matilta for Linda Shanahan and trainer Tommy Stack in the Grade 2 New York Friday, Robert Masterson’s Tepin in Saturday’s Grade 1 Just A Game for trainer Mark Casse, Rigney Racing’s Channel Marker in Saturday’s Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational for trainer Phil Bauer and Barry Schwartz’s Japan in Saturday’s WinStar Farm Easy Goer for trainer Bill Mott. … NYRA reported total wagering of $134,839,391 for Saturday’s Belmont Day card, second most in history, and on-track wagering of more than $16.8 million.