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Aaron previews the 2023 Belmont Stakes (G1) from Belmont Park, then gives his top picks & long shots from the Third Jewel of the Triple Crown. After scratching from the Kentucky Derby (G1) as the morning line favorite, Forte finally faces off against Angel of Empire & Tapit Trice, among others. Who wins The Test of the Champion? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
A competitive nine-horse field that includes 2022 Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Forte, Grade 1 Preakness Stakes winner National Treasure and three Grade 1 Kentucky Derby alumni comprises the 155th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Belmont Park, marking the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
The Belmont Stakes spearheads the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, run from June 8-10, and is one of six Grade 1 events carded for Saturday topped by the “Test of the Champion” in Race 12 at 7:02 p.m. Eastern as part of a 13-race card which offers a first post of 11:20 a.m.
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The blockbuster Saturday program also features three Breeders’ Cup “Win And You’re In” qualifying events, including the $500,000 Ogden Phipps [Distaff], $400,000 Jaipur [Turf Sprint], and $1 million Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap [Dirt Mile].
The Belmont Stakes, run at the endurance-testing 1 1/2-mile distance, was inaugurated in 1867 at the defunct Jerome Park with filly Ruthless capturing its premiere running. Throughout the past century-and-a-half, 38 horses have captured the final leg of America’s Triple Crown en route to Hall of Fame induction, including 12 of the 13 Triple Crown winners.
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This year’s “Test of the Champion” features Forte returning to action following a victory in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream Park, where he defeated next-out Grade 1 Kentucky Derby winner Mage by one length.
A Belmont triumph would be a redeeming one for the dark bay colt, who was scratched from the Kentucky Derby the morning of the race with a bruised foot.
Forte’s Championship campaign saw the son of Violence collect three Grade 1 victories, including the two-turn Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. In his 3-year-old debut, he picked up where he left off with a victory in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on March 4 at Gulfstream en route to his Florida Derby win.
Forte will attempt to give four-time Belmont winning Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher a second straight conquest of the carnations after saddling last year’s winner Mo Donegal. The last trainer to win consecutive Belmont Stakes runnings was fellow Hall of Famer and former mentor D. Wayne Lukas [1994-96].
“He’s such a pleasure to train, so professional and straight forward,” Pletcher said. “He’s one of those types of horses where if you feel like you need to do a little more with him like we have the last couple of works, he’s responsive. But if you want to go easy on him, he’ll do that too. He has a good mind to him, and I’m pleased with the way he seems to have maintained his fitness level. We’re happy with him.”
Through a record of 7-6-0-0, Forte boasts field-best earnings of $2,409,830.
Bred in Kentucky by South Gate Farm, Forte is out of the multiple stakes winning Blame mare Queen Caroline. He was purchased for $110,000 from the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Irad Ortiz, Jr., the pilot on Mo Donegal last year, retains the mount from post 6. He has been tabbed the 5-2 morning line favorite by NYRA oddsmaker David Aragona.
Grade 1 winner Tapit Trice adds to Pletcher’s strong hand and arrives off a seventh in the Kentucky Derby. Owned by Whisper Hill Farm and Gainesway Stable, Tapit Trice is one of two entrants sired by the influential Tapit, who has produced four Belmont Stakes winners.
Four weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby, Tapit Trice was a hard-fought winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 8 at Keeneland where he battled with Grade 1-placed Verifying down the stretch to win by a neck. The triumphant Grade 1 debut came six weeks following a victorious graded stakes debut in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, where he launched a furious bid late to go from eighth-to-first in the stretch run.
A four-time winner over as many racetracks, Tapit Trice broke his maiden in November going a one-turn mile at Aqueduct before defeating winners by eight lengths in his sophomore debut on February 4 at Gulfstream Park en route to his graded stakes scores.
“He’s got that playful attitude that comes with a lot of [Tapit progeny],” Pletcher said. “I love the way he gets over the ground. He’s got that big, long, efficient stride. I think the big sweeping turns here are going to be to his liking.”
Bred in Kentucky by co-owner Gainesway, Tapit Trice is out of the multiple graded stakes-placed mare Danzatrice, whose Pletcher-trained sire Dunkirk finished second in the 2009 Belmont Stakes. He was bought for $1.3 million at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Pletcher has campaigned previous Belmont Stakes victors Rags to Riches , Palace Malice , Tapwrit  and Mo Donegal. A triumph this year would put him on even terms with the late fellow Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, who won five straight runnings from 1982-86.
“They’re good galloping horses. They’re horses that aren’t going to be rank and you have to relax in order to get the mile and a half,” Pletcher said of his pair. “I think both of them fit the mold of the type of horses that we’ve had success with in the Belmont.”
Luis Saez seeks his second Belmont Stakes victory when piloting Tapit Trice, the 3-1 second choice, from post 2.
National Treasure [5-1] will attempt to be the 19th horse to sweep the Preakness-Belmont double without a Derby victory. The son of Quality Road went gate-to-wire while providing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez with his first win in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. He staved off a late stretch rally from Grade 1 winner Blazing Sevens to win by a head and register a 98 Beyer for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Third to Forte in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, National Treasure entered the Preakness off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 8 – his lone off-the-board placing in six starts. The last horse to win both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes without running in the Kentucky Derby was Pillory .
“We were really proud of the way he dug in. We figured the distance would help him the further they went,” Baffert said of his Preakness effort. “He’s a big, long jumping horse and he has speed. That horse [Blazing Sevens] came to him and went by him and he came back on. I was happy for the connections and for Johnny V getting his first Preakness win. That was exciting for him.”
National Treasure raced with blinkers on in the Preakness, previously sporting them in his maiden triumph and the Breeders’ Cup.
“I just wanted to keep him a little more focused,” Baffert said. “In his races here, Johnny said he was off and on. He’d be there and then not. So, I thought a little blinker would keep him focused, but I don’t think it made a huge difference.”
National Treasure is owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan. He was purchased for $500,000 from the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Sale.
Velazquez retains the mount from post 4, while seeking his third Belmont Stakes win.
Trainer Brad Cox will go three deep in pursuit of his second Belmont Stakes score after saddling dual Eclipse Award-winner Essential Quality in 2021. This year, he will be represented by Kentucky Derby contenders Angel of Empire [third] and Hit Show [fifth], as well as stakes-placed Tapit Shoes.
Owned by Albaugh Family Stable, Angel of Empire [post 8, Flavien Prat, 7-2] earned a field-best 104 Beyer in the Kentucky Derby when launching a seven-wide move at the top of the lane and making up ground in the stretch drive to finish third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Mage.
Following the scratch of Forte, the son of Classic Empire was made the lukewarm favorite and entered off victories in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 1 at Oaklawn Park and the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 18 at Fair Grounds Race Course.
“I think he’ll like the mile and a half,” Cox said. “We’d always thought he would be better as the distances got further. Obviously, in February, the race was a mile and an eighth and he was able to duplicate that performance in the Arkansas Derby. He ran really well going a mile and a quarter in the Derby and came up just a little short, but it’s the best group of 3-year-olds we had to face so far. Now, we’re getting the chance to go a mile and a half.”
Angel of Empire will add blinkers for the Belmont Stakes.
“Flavien came back after the Derby and immediately said to put blinkers on the horse,” Cox said. “I don’t know that it would have made a big difference in winning the Derby, but I do know that he does train well in them. It’s something to experiment with and see what happens. I’m very happy with where he’s at.”
Angel of Empire, who is out of the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel, was bred in Pennsylvania by Forgotten Land Investment Inc. and Black Diamond Equine. The last Belmont Stakes winner born in the Keystone State was Foxford .
Gary and Mary West’s Hit Show [10-1] was beaten 6 1/4 lengths in the Derby where he was forwardly placed down the backside and responded well when asked around the turn, but flattened out in mid stretch.
Hit Show, by Candy Ride, was a close second in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino on April 8 at Aqueduct following a 5 1/2-length romp in the Grade 3 Withers on February 11 over the same oval. A three-time winner over as many tracks, Hit Show was a first-out maiden winner at Keeneland in October and beat winners at Oaklawn Park two starts later.
“He does things right,” Cox said. “He’s a solid enough work horse. He had a good work [on Saturday] at Churchill Downs and bounced out of it in great shape. He’s spent a little time at Belmont this winter when he ran in the Withers and we’ve been targeting this basically since the Derby.”
Manny Franco, the pilot aboard 2020 winner Tiz the Law, will seek his second Belmont Stakes score from post 7.
Tapit Shoes [post 1, Jose Ortiz, 20-1] completes the Cox trio and arrives off a close second to returning rival Red Route One in the April 22 Bath House Row going nine furlongs at Oaklawn. The chestnut Tapit colt has made all five of his starts going two turns, including a second-out graduation by 7 1/2 lengths in December at Fair Grounds.
“He’s a good colt. He’s getting better with each start,” Cox said. “He had a good work at Churchill [on Saturday] morning and he’s a horse that always stays on in his works and gallops out well. It gives us the confidence that he’ll like the mile and a half. His last run was going a mile and an eighth and I thought it was his best race to date. He’s another one that does have to step up and run the race of his life to be competitive and based off his work, I think he’s going in the right direction.”
Tapit Shoes, out of the multiple graded stakes-placed Flower Alley mare Awesome Flower, is a half-brother to dual Grade 1-winning multimillionaire Cyberknife, who also was trained by Cox.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the 2016 Belmont with Creator, will saddle Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred Red Route One in pursuit of his second Belmont Stakes win.
The son of Gun Runner was a last-out fourth in the Preakness following a triumph over Tapit Shoes in the Bath House Row, which came one start after a troubled sixth in the Arkansas Derby. He began his year when second in both the Grade 3 Southwest and Grade 2 Rebel at the Arkansas oval.
“He’s awfully honest and he shows up and puts his run in every time. He certainly benefits from having a lively pace in front of him and we’ll have to see how everything plays out,” said Winchell Thoroughbreds racing and bloodstock advisor David Fiske. “He ran a little straighter in the Bath House Row. In the Arkansas Derby, he kind of ducked in behind horses that were in front of him, and his altering course cost him points to get into the Kentucky Derby. He just missed being second or third by a small margin. A mile and a half is such an unusual distance in this country for horses and riders. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot as to whether anyone can figure out what the early fractions should be. If they go a little fast, we could end up right there.”
Red Route One [15-1] will break from post 9 under Joel Rosario, who will attempt his third Belmont Stakes victory.
Trainer Jena Antonucci and Blue Rose Farm will both be represented by their first Belmont Stakes starter with Grade 3 Peter Pan winner Arcangelo. The son of Arrogate arrives off no prior two-turn experience and will attempt to join Tonalist , A.P. Indy , and Coastal  as horses to sweep the Peter Pan-Belmont double.
Arcangelo did not make his first start until December and broke his maiden at third asking on March 18 going one mile at Gulfstream Park. Antonucci credits Blue Rose Farm owner Jon Ebbert for exercising patience throughout the horse’s natural progression.
“He saw how this horse was putting himself together. He said, ‘I understand’ and he took this breath on him and took a step back,” Antonucci said. “I think he saw so much of that deep pedigree and how immature the horse was and that the biggest thing he wanted to emphasize was to not rush him. He spent all summer in Saratoga last year just working on growing up, paddock schooling and being as busy as he can – giving him those tools so that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed at all that energy that’s coming at him.”
A triumph would make Antonucci the first female trainer to capture the Belmont Stakes. The best finish by a female trainer in the Belmont Stakes took place in 1988 when Dianne Carpenter saddled Kingpost to a runner-up finish behind Risen Star.
Arcangelo, a $35,000 purchase at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, possesses Belmont Stakes-influenced bloodlines through his third dam Better Than Honour, who produced Belmont Stakes winners Jazil  and Rags to Riches.
Breaking from post 3 at 8-1 odds, Arcangelo will be ridden by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who piloted Mage to victory in the Kentucky Derby. A win will make Castellano the first jockey to score two American Classic triumphs in the same year on different horses since fellow Hall of Famer Calvin Borel rode Mine That Bird [Kentucky Derby] and Rachel Alexandra [Preakness] in 2009.
Completing the field is Alexandres’ Il Miracolo [post 5, Marcos Meneses, 30-1], who enters off a pacesetting triumph in a one-turn mile allowance optional claimer on May 11 at Gulfstream Park. Trained by Antonio Sano, the Gun Runner chestnut was off the board in his four attempts at graded stakes level.
“He should be forwardly placed,” Sano said. “The horse is doing great. A mile and a half is not an easy distance, but we’re giving it a try.”
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