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Vinny from Real Dynasty Picks previews the 2023 Woody Stephens Stakes (G1) from Belmont Park, then gives his top picks & long shots. The Bob Baffert-trained Arabian Lion steps up in class after crushing the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, but will he pass his latest test? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Courtlandt Farms’ General Jim will look to win his third straight graded stakes in Saturday’s Grade 1, $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun, a seven-furlong sprint for sophomores at Belmont Park.
The Woody Stephens is slated as Race 8 on Saturday’s lucrative Belmont Stakes Day card. First post is 11:20 a.m. Eastern.
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Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, the Into Mischief colt made the grade in February in the seven-furlong Grade 3 Swale at Gulfstream Park, posting a one-length score over next-out stakes winner Super Chow.
General Jim followed last out with a gutsy neck score over returning rival Fort Bragg in a frantic finish in the Grade 2 Pat Day Mile on the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby undercard at Churchill Downs.
McGaughey and Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day enjoyed tremendous success through the years, particularly with fellow Hall of Famer Easy Goer, a nine-time Grade 1-winner and victor of one of the most memorable editions of the Belmont Stakes when besting arch-rival Sunday Silence in the 1989 renewal of the “Test of the Champion.”
“I was very thrilled with the win at Churchill. Pat Day is a special guy to me,” McGaughey said. “Early in my career, I think a lot of the success I had was attributed to him and his riding. He suited me and the way I like to do things very well. To be able to win the Pat Day Mile with a horse I like [was special]. To see those two horses [Fort Bragg and General Jim] hook up and run that hard together was a lot of fun.”
General Jim, through a record of 7-4-0-2 for purse earnings of $519,833, has endured some ups and downs in his brief career. A maiden win on turf at second asking in September at Saratoga was followed by a 3 1/4-length allowance win one month later on the Keeneland green. But he would falter as the favorite in the one-mile Central Park over firm footing in November at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The lack of finish at the Big A prompted the veteran conditioner and owner Donald Adam of Courtlandt Farms to move the talented bay back to the main track where he had finished third on debut in August at the Spa.
“I couldn’t quite understand it,” said McGaughey of the Central Park effort. “It looked at the head of the stretch that he had everything under control. Mr. Adam said he’d like to try him back on the dirt, and I understood that. His races have been good since.”
General Jim endured traffic trouble next out in the stretch run of the one-mile Mucho Macho Man on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream Park under regular rider Luis Saez, but was full value in his stalking score in the Swale.
“Saez came back and said, ‘This horse is hard to figure because there’s a lot more there,’” recalled McGaughey of the Mucho Macho Man effort. “So, I fiddled with him, gave him a little time, and he ended up running back good in the Swale.”
Fort Bragg got the jump on General Jim in the Pat Day Mile, surging to the lead after three-quarters and spinning the field into the stretch run. But Saez got to work aboard General Jim and made a six-wide move to collar Fort Bragg with a furlong to run and stayed on strong to secure the win in a final time of 1:34.43.
McGaughey said General Jim, who missed the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in March at Gulfstream with a cough, benefitted from the break between starts.
“I gave him a little more time, which I think he needed, and then he ran good in the Pat Day Mile,” McGaughey said.
General Jim will exit post 4 on Saturday and the Hall of Fame trainer said he will let Saez map out a winning trip as the colt again shortens to seven furlongs.
“I think the cutback will be OK,” said McGaughey, who won this event on three occasions when it was known as the Riva Ridge from 1985-2005, scoring with Adjudicating , Gold Fever  and Coronado’s Quest . “I think he has enough speed where when they break, he’ll be able to put him where he wants to. He’s got a good rider in Saez and I’m not worried about that.”
An $850,000 purchase at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, General Jim, bred in Kentucky by Fifth Avenue Bloodstock and Centerline Breeding, is out of the stakes-placed Curlin mare Inspired by Grace, who is a full-sister to Grade 1-winner Off the Tracks and multiple graded-stakes winner Concord Point.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a two-time Woody Stephens winner, will saddle a pair of contenders in Fort Bragg [post 8, Joel Rosario] and Arabian Lion [post 3, John Velazquez].
SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan’s multiple graded-stakes placed Fort Bragg will add blinkers as he looks to turn the tables on General Jim.
The $700,000 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale purchase was third in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and opened his sophomore season with fifth-place finishes in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita in March and the Grade 1 Florida Derby in April at Gulfstream where he lunged at the break.
Last out, Fort Bragg, who is out of the stakes-winning New York-bred mare March X Press, overcame some bumping at the start of the Pat Day Mile before taking command and eventually acquiescing to General Jim in the final jump.
“He ran well. Het got away a little flat footed and just got beat there at the end,” Baffert said. “He got a really good trip, but he just got outrun. If he can bring that race back, it puts him right there.”
Zedan Racing Stables’ graded-stakes placed Arabian Lion earned a field-best 103 Beyer Speed Figure last out with a gate-to-wire four-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton on May 20 at Pimlico on the Preakness Day undercard.
That effort came on the heels of a pacesetting half-length loss to First Mission in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Lexington in April at Keeneland.
“We were hoping he would do that the race before and he didn’t,” said Baffert of the Sir Barton tour de force. “I think he’s just learning and getting better and better.”
Baffert had initially considered Arabian Lion, by Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown-winner Justify, for the 12-furlong Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets in the aftermath of the Sir Barton.
“I’m backing him up. If there was a mile race, it would be better for him but it’s the Woody Stephens and it’s a Grade 1,” Baffert said. “It will be a tough, competitive race. On the turnback, sometimes they run well. We’ll send him back to two turns again after that.”
Arabian Lion, whose third dam is the McGaughey-trained Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, was purchased for $600,000 at the OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training.
Drew’s Gold [post 13, Jose Gomez] is undefeated in four starts and will make his graded debut for trainer James Chapman, who co-owns the $25,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase in partnership with Stuart Tsujimoto.
The Violence ridgling has won at four different tracks, taking his debut last May at Churchill and returning to best winners in his seasonal debut in January at Laurel Park.
Drew’s Gold has made his most recent two outings in NYRA circuit stakes traveling six furlongs under Jose Gomez, scoring in the Jimmy Winkfield in February at the Big A and last out in the Gold Fever on May 12 over Big Sandy.
The multiple graded-stakes placed Gilmore [post 12, Irad Ortiz, Jr.] is trained by Brendan Walsh and owned by the same connections as Fort Bragg.
By Twirling Candy and out of the Henny Hughes mare My Surfer Girl, the $250,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase finished second in the nine-furlong El Camino Real Derby over the Golden Gate synthetic when in Baffert’s barn.
Gilmore has made his last three starts for Walsh, including a runner-up effort in the seven-furlong Grade 3 Bay Shore in April at Aqueduct and a deep-closing effort last out to finish third in the Pat Day Mile.
“He’s doing great. He’s been progressive all year,” Walsh said. “I thought he ran a very good race in the Pat Day Mile and he’s got to improve again to be competitive in the Woody Stephens, but I think he’s on an upward curve. Hopefully, he’ll show that on Saturday. The more pace, the better for him.”
Spendthrift Farm and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations stakes-winner Victory Formation [post 11, Florent Geroux] will return to one turn for the first time this year for trainer Brad Cox.
The $340,000 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale purchase won his first three career starts, capturing a pair of one-turn sprints in Kentucky last year before winning his seasonal debut around two turns in the one-mile Smarty Jones on January 1 at Oaklawn Park, where he bested next-out Grade 2 Risen Star-winner Angel of Empire.
Victory Formation was a distant ninth in the nine-furlong Risen Star in February at the Fair Grounds and landed a pacesetting third on his return last out in the nine-furlong Bath House Row when a half-length back of the victorious Red Route One, who will contest Saturday’s Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.
“We gave him the opportunity around two turns after being successful in starting his career around one turn,” Cox said. “I’m hoping the cutback will propel him forward to where he’ll be competitive in graded stakes. This is a Grade 1, so he’ll need to take a move forward. He seems to be training well and I think he fits with the group.”
The Tapwrit colt, bred by Gainesway Thoroughreds, is a half-brother to the multiple graded stakes-placed turf mare Bellamore.
A competitive field also includes:
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