- Expected G1 Belmont Stakes favorite Classic Empire arrives
- Epicharis breezes an easy five furlongs for Belmont
- Belmont-bound Senior Investment puts in ‘happy half’
- Hancock looks to break through with Waki Patriot
- G3 winner Multiplier settles in for Saturday’s Belmont
- Belmont contender Meantime hopes speed plays in his favor
John Oxley’s Classic Empire, the expected favorite in the 149th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets, arrived at Belmont Park on Tuesday and settled in well, trainer Mark Casse said.
Classic Empire flew from Kentucky to New York City this morning. Led by Casse’s son and assistant trainer Norm Casse, Classic Empire stepped off the van at 11:20 a.m. and made the short trek to Casse’s barn. He was one of four shippers in the contingent, along with World Approval, Salty and Awesome Slew, pointing to weekend stakes.
Casse said the unseasonably cold temperatures – 55 degrees in Elmont as he walked into the shed row – could play into Classic Empire’s favor.
“He likes this weather; the cooler, the better,” Casse said. “He enjoys it.”
Classic Empire galloped 1 1/2 miles on Monday at Churchill Downs. Runner-up in the Grade 1 Preakness, losing to Cloud Computing by a head, Classic Empire is one of just two entries in the Belmont field to have started in both previous legs of the Triple Crown, along with Lookin At Lee.
Casse added that 2016 juvenile champion Classic Empire looked as if he came out of the flight in good order and said the Pioneerof the Nile colt’s temperament reminds him of 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps.
“Everything is good. When he’s happy, he ships well,” Casse said. “The only time he didn’t ship well was the time he ran bad in the [Grade 2] Holy Bull. Of all the athletes I can compare him to, I think he’s like Michael Phelps. When he comes, he’s focused. Phelps always looks focused when he’s ready to swim, and that’s what it reminds me of. He looks focused and ready to go.”
Classic Empire finished fourth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby after a troubled trip, and Casse said he is excited to see how he handles the “Test of the Champion.”
“The racing gods were not with us on Derby weekend, but he should be tough in there,” said Casse, who added that Classic Empire will have a very light week ahead. “We’re now in the period where it’s not a whole lot of much.”
So far everything is going according to plan for Belmont Stakes hopeful Epicharis. The colt breezed a pedestrian 1:06 for five furlongs with regular rider Masa Aki over Belmont’s training track early Tuesday morning. The son of Gold Allure went easy down the backside, but picked up the pace late, clocking the last three furlongs in 37 seconds. Trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara was in good spirits following the colt’s only work before Saturday’s race.
“He went good early,” Hagiwara said through interpreters. “He was good down the backstretch. I think it might be better to get some position behind some horses. He’s recovered from the long flight well, better than Dubai. So, he’s in good form.”
Hagiwara trained 2009 Japanese Derby winner Logi Universe, the only Group 1 winner thus far in his career. The 58-year-old conditioner, said to be a man of very few words, calls Epicharis “a very good horse” which explains why he has a lot of backing coming from his homeland.
“I’m a Japanese horseman, and this is the most exciting thing I’ve been able to have,” he said through his interpreter. “I’m very honored to have a horse here in the Belmont Stakes, I’m very excited. I’m hoping for a good result because he’s getting good support from Japan, the horsemen, and the other connections, so I’m sure that Japan is hoping for a good result.”
As for the comparisons between Belmont Park and Japan and assessing the 12 others Epicharis and his team will face on Saturday there are a few that benefit his colt.
“The track here is firmer than in Japan,” said Hagiwara. “Back there we have much softer. The climate is much better here than over in Japan.”
The stoic, but busy Hagiwara is enjoying his time in New York, and already has dined at the famed steakhouse Peter Luger’s. If Epicharis runs well in the Belmont, there is a chance that he would return to run in the U.S. once again.
“The plan is to ship back to Japan after the race, but if the results are good he will consider running him in the Breeders’ Cup or the other great races here in America.”
Fern Circle Stable’s Senior Investment was in good order after Tuesday morning’s four-furlong work on the main track. Jockey Dylan Davis was once again aboard the son of Discreetly Mine, taking him through a quarter-mile in 25 2/5 seconds, with a final time of 50.19 before galloping out five eighths in 1:02 4/5.
It was the second and final work for the Ken McPeek trainee since his third-place finish in the Grade 1 Preakness on May 20.
“It was a simple half-mile, nothing complicated, just let him stretch his legs over the track,” McPeek said. “I think that horses need a little work over this racetrack before they run here and he handled it fine. What I call a ‘happy half’ – just keep him happy, switch his leads, give him a peek at the scenery, all that. Dylan said he was a little conservative with him, just kind of went easy and finished up well.”
Saturday’s 149th running of the Belmont Stakes will be McPeek’s sixth start in the Belmont after he saddled Pineaff in an attempt to dethrone Charismatic’s bid for a Triple Crown in 1999. The former hotwalker for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey changed his training tactics after Pineaff was a well-beaten ninth.
“The first horse I ran in the Belmont was in 1999 and he never trained over it, and it was a disaster; the horse got beat like 50 lengths,” McPeek said. “When I came back, I decided that I’d have a horse that trained here and that’s what it is. He just needed a little work over the track and he got it and handled it great. He cooled out good.”
McPeek returned to deny Victory Gallop’s Triple Crown when Sarava became the longest price in the history of the Belmont in 2002. Sarava went off at 70-1, and returned $142.50. McPeek saddled Atigun to a third-place finish in 2012, then finished off the board with Unstoppable U (6th) in 2012 and Frac Daddy (14th) in 2013.
In 2004, trainer Larry Jones traveled from little Ellis Park in western Kentucky to win Belmont Park’s Grade 1 Acorn with Island Sand. The next year, Jones relocated his training base to Delaware after a tornado devastated Ellis Park, soon becoming one of the leading trainers in the country.
There is a growing list of horses advancing to prominence after racing at Ellis Park (such as Belmont Stakes contenders Lookin At Lee and Senior Investment). What is virtually non-existent since Island Sand is a horse shipping to a New York stakes while at the time stabled at the track nestled between Henderson, Kentucky, and Evansville, Indiana, on the only sliver of Kentucky north of the Ohio River. But that changes in Thursday’s $150,000 Astoria with John Hancock, a third-generation trainer stabled the Ellis, the trainer of Waki Patriot.
While Hancock has sold horses who have gone on to race and win in New York – including 2015 Tremont winner Cocked and Loaded – he’s never had a starter of his own in the Big Apple.
After finishing second in her debut against boys in a field of 11, Waki Patriot beat up on fillies for a five-length victory, with both races at Keeneland. Two days before the Kentucky Derby, she took fourth the $100,000 Kentucky Juvenile, again against colts, losing by 2 1/4 lengths while having a considerably troubled trip. Second in that race by only a neck to another filly, Buy Sell Hold, was Amberspatriot, also trained by Hancock. Waki Patriot and Amberspatriot, both daughters of the Spendthrift Farm stallion Awesome Patriot, are owned by the trainer’s wife, Donna, and long-time partner Charles Brown.
“Waki Patriot was in season that day and was laying on the pontoon in the starting gate and got away bad and then kind of got in trouble around the turn and bounced off the fence,” Hancock said. “But she came flying down the lane. [Jockey] Corey [Lanerie] said he thought he was on way the best horse if he hadn’t gotten in so much trouble. You have to give her a shot.”
Waki and Amberspatriot went unsold by breeder Brandywine Farm after Waki’s top bid was $1,200 and Ambers’ $1,300 – which combined matches Awesome Patriot’s $2,500 stud fee. Hancock acquired them and two other yearlings privately for a negligible amount.
“The myth’s out there that you have to be a doctor, lawyer or oilman or very rich person to be in this business,” Hancock said. “If you get hooked up with the right people and are in it for the right reasons, you can get in it for the enjoyment for a very reasonable amount of money. Here are two fillies that you couldn’t ask for any more than what they’ve given. They took me to the highest level, to Keeneland. What can you say? Keeneland! You walk over and you’re in awe of all the people, and I beat them. So we drive down the road 75 miles and run against Hall of Famers. They stepped up and ran hard, gave me another thrill.”
Said Donna Hancock: “It really feels good to have nice horses to be able to go somewhere and run in big stakes races. It’s exciting.”
Waki Patriot, who flew to New York Tuesday morning, will be in the Belmont Park care of trainer Brad Cox, who has divisions in both Kentucky and New York. Hancock will watch the race at home, having a pair of 2-year-old filly first-time starters that he holds in high regard running Friday at Churchill Downs.
Hancock might be unknown in New York, but in Kentucky he has earned the reputation for developing inexpensive babies, winning at Keeneland and then selling. One key to Hancock’s early season success is that the horses get very fit training during the winter at the Riverside Downs training facility just across the Ohio River.
Grade 3 Illinois Derby winner Multiplier, set to make his next start in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, quickly settled into his new surroundings on the Belmont Park backstretch after arriving shortly after 11:30 Tuesday morning.
Richelle Duhon, a foreman and exercise rider for trainer Brendan Walsh, made the entire 6 ½-hour trip from Louisville, Ky. to New York with Multiplier starting with a 5 a.m. departure from Churchill Downs.
“It was a good trip. He was very good,” Duhon said. “He’s a good traveler. He settled right in and is looking for his food.”
Other Kentucky-based Belmont Stakes contenders on the one-hour, 45-minute Tex Sutton flight were probable favorite Classic Empire, J Boys Echo, and Hollywood Handsome.
“He was right next to J Boys Echo and they were hanging out sharing the hay rack. He made a new friend,” Duhon said. “He’s a character. He’s very funny. In the van, all the other horses were standing quiet and he was there shaking his chain. He’s something else. He’s a clown.”
Walsh, scheduled to arrive in New York early Thursday evening, said Multiplier will visit Belmont’s main track Wednesday under the watch of his assistant, Tom Molloy, likely around mid-morning.
Multiplier enters the Belmont off a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Preakness May 20 at Pimlico. He had won his previous two starts capped by a rallying head victory over favored Hedge Fund in the April 22 Illinois Derby, his stakes debut.
Joel Rosario, winner of the 2014 Belmont aboard Tonalist, retains the mount for the Belmont after riding Multiplier for the first time in the Preakness.
Silverton Hill’s Meantime galloped over the main track first thing Tuesday morning, the usual manner trainer Brian Lynch sends the Shackleford colt to work. The runner-up to the undefeated Timeline in the Grade 3 Peter Pan is progressing nicely toward the Belmont, by far the toughest race in his four career starts.
“Not going to win anything jogging around here,” Lynch said referring to his shedrow. “We galloped the hell out of him. He’s doing real good. The weather was still good then. The track was still perfect, so we got lucky.”
Lynch is saddling his first Belmont Stakes runner on Saturday. With a victory, the 58-year-old Australian would become the 18th trainer to win the race first time out. He is joined by Mark Casse, Hiyoshi Hagiwara and Brendan Walsh – all making their first start in this year’s Belmont. Looking at how the race is shaping up, Lynch likes what he sees.
“A win would be nice,” he said. “Real nice. Just to get a piece of it I’d be happy. My main thing is there is not a lot of speed in the race. He could be left alone, and lone speed is always dangerous.”
The Lynch barn will be busy over the next few days as they will saddle Noholdingback Bear in the Grade 3 True North, Lightstream in the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses and Loose On the Town in the Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.