ELMONT, NY – American Anthem hit all the right notes on his way to a stirring victory in the 33rd edition of the Grade 2, $500,000 Woody Stephens at Belmont Park on Saturday.
The win gave jockey Mike Smith a quartet of graded stakes wins in as many tries and kept trainer Bob Baffert unblemished in three graded stakes races at that stage of the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Owned by WinStar Farm, LLC, and the China Horse Club, the Kentucky-bred American Anthem, who was sent postward as the 9-5 favorite in the field of 11 3-year-olds, was rated confidently by his Hall of Fame rider behind the early speed before taking command coming out of the turn and then drawing off down the lane to score by 3 1/4 lengths and cover the 7 furlongs in 1:22.14 on a fast track.
“Mike Smith has always thought he’d go longer,” said the Hall of Fame trainer. “The way he sat there, and when he pushed the button, I thought, ‘Wow.’ It was pretty impressive.”
Recruiting Ready, who was looking for his fourth straight win and third consecutive stakes score, shot to the front leaving the gate and set sizzling splits of :21.79 and :44.81. Once American Anthem took over, the mark for 6 furlongs was a spritely 1:09.35.
A fast-closing Guiseppe the Great got up for second, while Recruiting Ready hung on for third, another 2 1/2 lengths behind.
“Oh, man, it’s just like the good old days, back in New York and getting the opportunity to ride some great horses today for (trainers) Bob (Baffert) and Jerry (Hollendorfer),” said Smith, who two races earlier took the Grade 1, $750,000 Ogden Phipps with two-time Eclipse Award winner Songbird for Hollendorfer, and before that won the $150,000 Easy Goer with West Coast and the Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn on Abel Tasman for Baffert. “It’s just a blast, man. You point the good ones in the right direction and they get the job done.”
As for American Anthem, Smith said, “He ran really well. We kept trying to jump into the Triple Crown thing with him. It might have been a little too much for him at the time. Bob did a great job of assessing that and knowing that and backing way off on him. He started back and got him back running short, and we’ll go from there, see if we can stretch him out later. He was moving around the turn. but the wind picked up, and, man, it’s a big, bad headwind around the turn. I was out in the open and I just started getting my little body as low as I could just to kind of get through the wind. It was really slowing us. But once I got through it, boom, he took off.”
American Anthem, who was bred by WinStar Farm and is a son of the Baffert-trained Bodemeister, improved to three wins in six tries and won his second straight graded stakes race after taking the Grade 3 Laz Barrera at Santa Anita last out. He almost tripled his earnings to $424,545 with the $300,000 winner’s share of the purse.
The remaining order of finish was Petrov, Long Haul Bay, Gold for the King, Wild Shot, Hard Scramble, Blessed Halo, Classic Rock, and The Money Monster.
The Woody Stephens is named for the Hall of Fame trainer who accomplished the extraordinary feat of winning five straight runnings of the Belmont from 1982-86.
Baffert, who won the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah, said of his spectacular day: “The odds are usually against you, but so far, we’ve had good trips and good horses. They came in here, they prepped well and shipped well. All you can ask for is that they run as well as they ship. There’s a lot of pressure on a big day. You don’t want to embarrass a good horse on a big day.”
American Anthem returned $5.90, $4.60, and $3.10. Giuseppe the Great brought back $18 and $11.20, while Recruiting Reading paid $4.70 to show.