(Trainer Todd Pletcher / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

From the NYRA Media Team:

Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher appears to be in a good spot heading into the upcoming Saratoga Race Course meet after enjoying graded-stakes success Saturday at Belmont Park with Far Bridge and Charge It.

LSU Stables’ Far Bridge earned his first graded stakes triumph in the 10-furlong Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Derby Invitational. Pletcher said following the race that the 1 3/16-mile Grade 1, $600,000 Saratoga Derby Invitational on August 5 would be, “a logical next target.”

Whisper Hill Farm’s Charge It is a likely candidate for the Grade 1, $1 million Whitney at nine furlongs on the same day following a 4 3/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Suburban going 10 furlongs. The Suburban win garnered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

Pletcher’s Belmont-based assistant Byron Hughes reported that both horses exited their winning performances in good order.

“Both looked great this morning. They ate up last night and were walking around with a purpose this morning. They’re both happy with themselves,” Hughes said. 

Far Bridge entered the Belmont Derby from a pair of troubled second-place finishes in the Grade 2 American Turf on May 6 at Churchill Downs and the Grade 2 Pennine Ridge on June 3 at Belmont. But luck was on his side in the Belmont Derby, where he raced along the hedge around the far turn under Jose Ortiz before tipping into the clear in mid-stretch to take down pacesetting longshot Mondego to win by one length over late-running The Foxes. Far Bridge earned a career-best 95 Beyer in victory.

“Jose did a great job giving him a patient ride,” Hughes commented. 

Bred in Kentucky by Calumet Farm, Far Bridge is out of the Kitten’s Joy mare Fitpitcher. His third dam is multiple graded stakes winner Pleasant Temper – the granddam of graded stakes winning millionaire Long Range Toddy.

Charge It entered from unplaced efforts in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap on April 22 and the Grade 1 Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap on June 10, where he finished a respective fifth and fourth. 

The Suburban was the 4-year-old son of Tapit’s first start going the 10-furlong distance since finishing 17th in last year’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, but he passed the Classic distance test with flying colors with a commanding pacesetting performance under Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez. 

“He stayed the 10 furlongs and Johnny was happy with him, too,” Hughes said. “He got definitely got into a nice rhythm.”

Charge It’s triumph also garnered a sense of pride from Todd Quast, the general manager of Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm.

“He ran big. We never felt like he had a problem with distance by watching him train in the morning, but he has to do it in the afternoon,” Quast said. “He can be just a little bit quirky. The talent and raw ability are both there, and he can do it in the afternoons. When he puts it all together, it’s an amazing performance.”

Following the Kentucky Derby, Charge It was an emphatic 23-length winner of the local Grade 3 Dwyer in the final start of his sophomore season. He made his 2023 debut in a February allowance going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths. He then cut back to a one-turn mile to finish second in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile the following month. 

“We had started off this year in the allowance race which was great and then in the Gulfstream Park Mile wasn’t as good, but he was still right there,” Quast said. “I think he lost some confidence in the race at Oaklawn. We were thinking either go straight to the Whitney which we didn’t really want to do, or do something like this. The horses that will be in the Whitney will be ultra tough, but I think our horse is ultra tough. On a given day, he can be as good as anyone.”

Charge It is out of the Indian Charlie mare I’ll Take Charge, who is out of the prolific Grade 1-winner and producer Take Charge Lady. Named the 2014 Broodmare of the Year, Take Charge Lady produced 2013 Champion 3-Year-Old Male Will Take Charge, Grade 1 winners Take Charge Indy and As Time Goes By, as well as Charming – the dam of 2014 Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Take Charge Brandi and multiple Grade 1-winner Omaha Beach. 

I’ll Take Charge was bought by Whisper Hill for $2.2 million at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and only won one of her five starts but never finished worse than third. 

“She was a decent racehorse, but had some physical issues,” Quast said. “To have a homebred run last year and this year and get right back on path is just huge. It’s very exciting.”

Quast pointed out that, like Charge It, 2022 Horse of the Year Flightline also is by Tapit and out of an Indian Charlie mare. 

“We’ll have to see how Flightline does,” Quast said. “I’m not saying we’re Flightline at all, but I think about how well received he is in the breeding shed and how good of a racehorse he was. If Charge It were to win the Whitney and then come back and be lucky enough to win the Breeders’ Cup, he should be well received in the breeding shed when he does go.”

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G1 Belmont Oaks-winner Aspen Grove is Saratoga bound

Irish shipper Aspen Grove made a stylish stretch run under Oisin Murphy to capture Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Fasig-Tipton Belmont Oaks Invitational at Belmont Park.

The 10-furlong inner turf test for sophomore fillies is the first leg of the Fasig-Tipton Fillies Turf Triple series, which is followed by the 1 3/16-mile Grade 3, $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Oaks Invitational on August 4 at Saratoga Race Course and the Grade 3, $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Jockey Club Oaks Invitational on September 16 going 11 furlongs at Belmont at the Big A.

Aspen Grove arrived in New York on June 30 and was cared for by Mark Enright, a recently retired jockey, who piloted the filly to victory in the Group 3 Newtownanner Stud Irish EBF in August at The Curragh. Enright was also aboard for her seasonal debut in the one-mile Group 3 Cornelscourt in May at Leopardstown before an off-the-board effort in the one-mile Group 1 Irish 1000 Guineas on May 28 at The Curragh.

Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm, breeder and co-owner of the Irish-bred Aspen Grove in partnership with Mrs. John Magnier, said the James “Fozzy” Stack-trained bay will ship upstate to Saratoga to trainer Jack Sisterson and point to either the Saratoga Oaks or the nine-furlong Grade 1, $300,000 Del Mar Oaks on August 19.

“Mark Enright who came over with the filly is going to stay, and I think she’ll go into Jack Sisterson’s barn,” Bernick said. “But I think Mark will continue to take care of her and ride her [in the mornings]. Fozzy will stay involved, but I think she’ll go into Jack’s barn. We’ll look at the Saratoga Oaks and we’ll consider the Del Mar Oaks also. She’ll go to Saratoga sometime this week.”

The Justify bay was loaded into the outermost post 9 with a blanket and guided immediately to the rail by Murphy after a slow break to save ground as Prerequisite and Be Your Best dueled for the lead.

“We always do that at home with her,” said Stack regarding the blanket. “The stalls at home are narrower and she was always a bit touchy as a 2-year-old. I don’t know if she even needs it anymore, but she’s had it on from her first start so we just leave it on her.”

Aspen Grove followed the run of Aspray, picking up speed through the far turn and surged past the favored Mission of Joy before nailing Prerequisite at the wire to win by three-quarters of a length in a final time of 2:04.09. She earned an 86 Beyer.

“When she’s good, she’s very good,” said Stack on Sunday morning. “The couple times she’s run bad there were legit excuses. In the Irish Guineas, she was in season. She ran bad as a 2-year-old one day at The Curragh when the track came up extremely hard and she just didn’t fire.”

Bernick noted that Stack – the former conditioner of third-place finisher Papilio for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse –  had always wanted to step Aspen Grove up in trip.

“He sort of thought Papilio had a better turn of foot, but going further he thought Aspen Grove was the better horse. It turns out, they were pretty close,” Bernick said.

Stack said before he comes to a decision on a next start for Aspen Grove, he would like to speak further with Murphy, who finished second aboard The Foxes in the featured Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational on Saturday before flying to France and guiding Chaldean to an off-the-board effort this morning in the Group 1 Haras d’Etreham Prix Jean Prat at Deauville won by Good Guess.

“My own inkling is that I’m not sure if Del Mar would suit her, but I wasn’t on her back yesterday,” Stack said. “One thing that played to her strengths yesterday was stepping up in trip. Grade 1s are important to fillies – the Saratoga race is worth more – if she was a gelding, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!”

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Maple Leaf Mel targets G1 Test after G3 Victory Ride romp

Trainer Melanie Giddings celebrated the first stakes win of her career Saturday with August Dawn Farm’s Maple Leaf Mel, who was named for her trainer during her tenure as an assistant trainer to the filly’s original conditioner Jeremiah Englehart. 

The New York-bred daughter of Cross Traffic notched the second graded coup of her career in Saturday’s Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont, landing a facile 2 1/2-length victory to keep her record unblemished through five lifetime outings. 

Giddings said Maple Leaf Mel returned to Saratoga Race Course Sunday morning where she will make her preparations towards an intended start in the Grade 1, $500,000 Test on August 5 at the Spa. 

“She is here and happy to be eating and to be back,” said Giddings. “The Test is the plan. She’ll have a few days off like everybody after their race and we’ll see how she comes out of it. We’ll make sure she’s happy and good and her energy is good and go from there. She’s a high-energy horse, so it takes quite a bit to knock her down. She looks pretty bright-eyed this morning.” 

Maple Leaf Mel, who also won Pimlico’s Grade 3 Miss Preakness on May 19, has won all five of her starts in gate-to-wire fashion, including her effort yesterday when guided by regular pilot Joel Rosario through splits of 22.54 seconds, 45.52 and 1:09.48 over the fast main track. She faced a brief challenge from Dazzling Blue into the stretch, but turned back her foe with ease to coast home the winner in a final time of 1:15.74. She earned a career-best 99 Beyer.

“It’s really special. When you have a horse like that and she’s already won four, you just want perfection for her all the time,” said Giddings. “I expected her to run the way she did. She just thrives on running. She’s the kind of horse anyone loves to have and when you’re taking her over, she’s going to give 110 percent.” 

Maple Leaf Mel, bred by Joe Fafone, made her first three outings against fellow state-breds, including a 7 3/4-length score in the East View in March for her sophomore debut. The grey filly has made an impressive jump from 2 to 3 and covered the Victory Ride’s 6 1/2 furlongs more than two seconds faster than she ran that same distance in the state-bred Seeking the Ante in August at the Spa. 

“I think she’s just learning and she just does things naturally and so easy,” said Giddings. “Her turn of foot and speed is really incredible and she doesn’t even know what she’s doing. I think the more she runs, she’s kind of just enjoying herself. She probably could have run even faster yesterday if she wanted to.” 

The Victory Ride was just the 29th lifetime start for Giddings, who went out on her own in January after working for Englehart for several years. Giddings said she is grateful to have a filly like Maple Leaf Mel so early on in her career. 

“I’m just really blessed, and not a lot of people get an opportunity with a horse like this,” said Giddings. “I appreciate having the chance. I’ve never missed a day since getting her in the barn when she was 2 with Jeremiah. Even when I’m having a bad day myself, she’s here and I suit up and go whether I feel like I can or can’t. It’s good for me. I just never want to miss a day with her.” 

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The Foxes under consideration for G1 Saratoga Derby or G1 Juddmonte International

King Power Racing’s The Foxes didn’t break well from the gate under Oisin Murphy in his North American debut but rallied stoutly down the lane to finish second, one length back of the victorious Far Bridge in Saturday’s Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Derby Invitational.

Maddy O’Meara, traveling assistant for trainer Andrew Balding, said she was proud of the effort from The Foxes.

“He flew home. We were just slow out the stalls which put him in that bad position,” O’Meara said. “He got a bit stuck for room and then made his run. A couple more meters and he would have got there.”

O’Meara said The Foxes, who exited the race in good order, will return to Balding’s yard in England on Tuesday.

“He ate up last night, jogged up fine and had a pick of grass. He’s happy,” O’Meara said.

The Foxes could now come under consideration for the 10-furlong Group 1 Juddmonte International on August 23 at York or a return trip to New York for the Grade 1, $600,000 Saratoga Derby Invitational going 1 3/16 miles on August 5 at Saratoga Race Course. The Saratoga Derby will offer the winner an automatic berth into the Group 1, $AUD 5 million Ladbrokes Cox Plate to be held on October 28 at Moonee Valley Racing Club in Victoria, Australia.

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DeVaux enjoys stakes success in two states with More Than Looks and Love and Money

Trainer Cherie DeVaux sent out five horses across four stakes this weekend and enjoyed tremendous success on Friday, capturing both the Clarksville Handicap with Love and Money at Horseshoe Indianapolis and the Grade 3, $250,000 Manila with More Than Looks at Belmont Park.

A solid weekend for the conditioner also included third-place finishes on Saturday with Vahva in the Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont and with Cagliostro in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby. Her lone off-the-board stakes starter was Bout Time in the Clarksville Handicap.

“All you can hope when you’re running in all these stakes races is that they all show up and run their race and they all did,” DeVaux said.

Victory Racing Partners’ More Than Looks made the grade with a last-to-first score under Hall of Famer John Velazquez in the one-mile Widener turf test for sophomores.

“He keeps progressing in each start and with time – both physically and mentally,” DeVaux said. “He’s shown that he has ability and just needs to put it all together and he did that in the Manila.”

More Than Looks, who boasts a record of 5-3-1-0, broke slowly in the Manila but benefitted from swift splits set by Talk of the Nation.

“He’s done that before. He’s a little quirky in the gate and just doesn’t break very sharp,” DeVaux said. “It’s helped him because he will get headstrong, so a belated break forces him to settle at the back of the pack.”

More Than Looks showed a similar rallying effort when second in a one-mile Keeneland turf allowance in April captured by Turf King, who went on to win the Grade 3 Marine at Woodbine Racetrack.

DeVaux said More Than Looks could now come under consideration for the Grade 2, $500,000 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame on August 4 at Saratoga Race Course or the one-mile Grade 2, $500,000 Secretariat on August 12 at Colonial Downs.

“The Hall of Fame is something we’d spoken about after he ran at Keeneland,” DeVaux said. “There’s also the Secretariat. There’s a couple different options for him, we’ll just have to see how he comes out of it.”

More Than Looks is out of the stakes-winning Harlan’s Holiday mare Ladies’ Privilege, who is a full-sister to multiple graded-stakes winner Takeover Target – winner of the 2015 Grade 2 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. His third dam, Critical Crew, produced multiple Grade 1-winning New York-bred Critical Eye.

DeVaux could potentially have two starters in the Hall of Fame with West Point Thoroughbreds and David Ingordo’s Northern Invader, a sophomore son of Collected, who graduated with an impressive eight-length score on July 2 here traveling one-mile over the Widener turf against older horses in his grass debut.

“I have to speak with both sets of clients and see how both horses are doing, how they come out of their races and how they move forward,” DeVaux said. “If one of them needs more time, we’ll give them more time. We just try to look after them individually and see how they’re training to give them both their best shot for each set of clients.”

The Ontario-bred colt, who made his first two starts on dirt, is also eligible for the $1 million King’s Plate, a 10-furlong Tapeta test restricted to Canadian-bred 3-year-olds on August 20 at Woodbine Racetrack.

“He was running on dirt and he just ran so well on the turf that going to the Tapeta and adding more distance is two unknowns for him. That would be a lot of change after such an impressive race on the turf,” DeVaux said. “If I thought he could win the King’s Plate, that would be a really prestigious race for him. But if he doesn’t run well or doesn’t take to the surface, it’s an unknown and we’re trying to develop our horses for the long term and not just for one race.”

Bred in Ontario by Anderson Farms Ont. Inc. and Peter A. Berglar Racing Interests, the $310,000 OBS March Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training purchase is out of the winning Arch mare Androeah, who is a full-sister to Grade 1-winner Archarcharch.

Vahva, a Gun Runner bay, was slated to be ridden by Tyler Gaffalione in the Victory Ride, a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for sophomore fillies. But when Gaffalione was injured after hitting his hip in the starting gate earlier on the card, Velazquez picked up the assignment and guided Vahva to a third-place finish when four lengths back of the freewheeling and undefeated Maple Leaf Mel.

DeVaux said Vahva will target the seven-furlong Grade 1, $500,000 Test on August 5 at the Spa. 

“She ran really well. The pace didn’t develop like we thought we’d see on paper,” DeVaux said. “She made a nice closing run and she did keep coming. She was left with a lot to do. She can handle the distance it seems to go a little farther, so we’ll put her in consideration for the Test. But we’ll have to see how she comes out of it.”

Gaffalione’s agent, Matt Muzikar, reported Sunday that Gaffalione was in good order and will be ready to ride on Opening Day Thursday at Saratoga.

DeVaux credited Velazquez for a solid effort on short notice while piloting the filly for the first time.

“Johnny did a really good job with not knowing much about her,” DeVaux said. “Tyler and I had spoken at length a few times about this filly and he was really excited to ride her. It was just unfortunate he was injured.”

Lael Stables’ Love and Money, a 5-year-old More Than Ready mare, hopped at the break but rallied impressively down the lane under Joseph Ramos to post a head score over Goin’ Good in the five-furlong Clarksville Handicap.

“Usually, she doesn’t break sharp but she just takes the rider to the front,” DeVaux said. “For the last two years since we acquired her, we’ve tried to break her of that habit to no avail, just to try and get her to settle so that she’s not so hard on herself and one dimensional.”

DeVaux said she instructed Ramos not to fight with the mare and to try and settle.

“She found herself at the back of the pack and made that really impressive run,” DeVaux said. “I was happy to see a different dimension to her. She broke like she normally does and just settled. It was refreshing to see her run like that.”

DeVaux said she has no immediate targets for Love and Money, who sports a ledger of 10-4-2-0 for purse earnings of $220,430.

Cagliostro, a sophomore son of Upstart, was full of run at the top of the lane under Edgar Morales but behind a wall of horses in the 1 1/16-mile Indiana Derby. He attempted to surge through a hole between Verifying and Transect in the stretch run but checked and had to re-rally and settled for third just 1 3/4-lengths back of the victorious Verifying, who nosed out Raise Cain.

“He altered course on more than one occasion and I’d like to have seen him make one run,” DeVaux said. “He’s a big horse with a big stride, so when he gets stopped like that it’s hard for him to regain his momentum.”

DeVaux said Cagliostro, who was eighth in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in March, could try the one-mile Ellis Park Derby on August 13.

“He exited that race in good shape,” DeVaux said. “We tried to stretch him out to a mile and three-sixteenths in the Louisiana Derby and that seems to be a bit too far for him, so considering something like the Travers probably isn’t in his future.”

***

Princesa Celina breezes for G3 Adirondack

Three Chimneys Farm’s Princesa Celina, an impressive maiden winner in May at Belmont Park, worked five-eighths from the gate in 1:01.60 in over the Keeneland main track on Saturday in company with maiden juvenile filly Sam’s Treasure.

Trainer Wesley Ward said Princesa Celina has trained brilliantly out of her 6 1/2-length maiden romp here traveling five furlongs over a muddy and sealed main track.

“This filly is one that you hope progresses to what you think she can do,” Ward said. “I’ve been all smiles since I watched her breeze. She pulled up great out of the work and I’m real excited about her.”

Ward said the Quality Road filly is pointing to a pair of starts at Saratoga Race Course, including the 6 1/2-furlong Grade 3, $200,000 Adirondack on August 6 and the seven-furlong Grade 1, $300,000 Spinaway on September 3.

“The work was nothing like her race. That race put her together mentally to where she knows what she’s here for,” Ward said. “She was just bounding along. I’m so excited to run this filly there. Hopefully, she shows what I’ve always thought of her and then we can get into the Spinaway because this filly is hopefully going to be something special.”

Ward said Princesa Celina was better suited to debut around the sweeping turns at Belmont and should only improve with added ground.

“She’s a big filly and meant to go further and she just came around really quick,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to run her here at Keeneland, so I thought I’d point to the first race in New York and she ran and she won. I’ve had some good ones, but I hold her in high regard.”

Princesa Celina, out of the Sky Mesa mare Lastofthesummerwine, is a half-sister to the Ward-trained multiple graded-stakes winner Happy Like a Fool.

 

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Status Seeker in search of graded clout in G3 Schuylerville

Parkland Thoroughbreds, Robert Cotrone, Israel Chavez and trainer Rudy Rodriguez’s debut maiden winner Status Seeker will make a jump up to graded level for her first start against winners in Thursday’s Grade 3, $175,000 Schuylerville, a six-furlong sprint for juvenile fillies, at Saratoga Race Course. 

The dark bay Upstart filly landed a gutsy half-length score at first asking in a June 2 maiden tilt sprinting five furlongs at Belmont Park, pouncing from just off the pace under Joel Rosario when swung three-wide in the turn to run down Permed in the stretch and complete the course in 59.73 seconds. She was awarded a 48 Beyer Speed Figure for the victory. 

“Not really,” Rodriguez said when asked if he was expecting the filly to win on debut. “Sometimes with the babies it’s just a matter of how they break and handle it, and she looked like she handled everything professional. She was stuck down on the inside and she got the kickback, but she was very, very professional. It’s good to see.” 

Status Seeker has worked over the Belmont main track four times since her debut, most recently working a half-mile in company in 51 seconds flat on Friday. 

“She had a nice, easy work on Friday and so far, so good,” said Rodriguez. “She went half a mile on the inside and galloped out in 1:03. She worked nice.” 

Bred in Kentucky by Brereton C. Jones, Status Seeker was purchased for $45,000 by Rodriguez at this year’s OBS March Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training and has already seen his filly return her purchase price, and more, after she earned $49,500 for her maiden coup. Out of the dual-winning Magna Graduate mare Casual Cocktail, Status Seeker is a half-sister to Bourbon Frontier, a five-time winner of over $160,000. 

Status Seeker will exit post 4 in rein to Rosario in an 11-horse field that includes Astoria-winner Closing Act for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and impressive debut winner Wine On Tap for Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. 

The Schuylerville is slated as Race 9 [5:44 p.m. Eastern] on Thursday’s 10-race Opening Day card. First post is 1:10 p.m.