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Belmont At The Big A Preview | Knickerbocker Stakes 2023: Pioneering Spirit Cuts Back
Pioneering Spirit (Gary Johnson/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

Belmont At The Big A Preview | Knickerbocker Stakes 2023: Pioneering Spirit Cuts Back

A. Bianco Holding Limited’s Pioneering Spirit will see a cutback in distance for the 63rd running of Friday’s Grade 3, $150,000 Knickerbocker for 3-year-olds and upward going nine furlongs over the outer turf at Belmont at the Big A.

The Knickerbocker is slated as Race 6 on Friday’s nine-race program. First post is 12:35 p.m. Eastern. 

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Trained by Linda Rice, Pioneering Spirit arrives from a seventh-place finish in the Grade 1 12-furlong Joe Hirsch Turf Classic on October 7 over yielding ground at Belmont at the Big A.

The 4-year-old son of American Pharoah entered that event from a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Bernard Baruch on September 4 over firm inner turf at Saratoga Race Course, where he ran a career-high 100 Beyer Speed Figure.

Pioneering Spirit, haltered for $40,000 in March, returned to turf for the first time since December 2021 when graduating at 13th asking for a $40,000 tag on May 11 at Belmont Park to kick off a four-race winning streak. He then defeated starter allowance company on June 4 going nine furlongs at the same track before winning two events at allowance and allowance optional claiming level. 

“He’s doing fine. There are limited opportunities before we stop on him for a winter break,” Rice said. “He’ll get some time off over the winter instead of going south and running at a different location. It seems like he’s a little better at a shorter distance than a longer distance. He can go longer, but maybe he needs a firm course.”

Jose Lezcano will ride from the outermost post 8.

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Grade 1-winner Rockemperor [post 5, Manny Franco] will look to give four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown a third Knickerbocker win after he saddled Devamani [2020] and Sacred Life [2021].

The 7-year-old Holy Roman Emperor gelding won the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic in October 2021 at Belmont Park as well as last year’s 11-furlong Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga, but is looking to round back into winning form this season. He was last seen posting a runner-up finish in the 10-furlong Grade 3 Singspiel on September 9 at Woodbine.

Owned by Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Wonder Stables, Michael E. Kisber and Michael J. Caruso, Rockemperor is the lone millionaire in the field with $1,208,397 in earnings.

Veteran conditioner Jimmy Toner will have two chances for a Knickerbocker triumph with Commandeer [post 3, Dylan Davis] and Siege of Boston [post 7, Jorge Ruiz].

Owned by AJ Suited Racing Stable, Commandeer will cut back in distance from a fourth-place finish in the 12-furlong Cape Henlopen on September 16 at Delaware Park. The son of Street Boss had previously dead heated for victory in an August 3 allowance optional claimer at Colonial, but was subsequently disqualified from purse money. A three-time winner over the main track, Commandeer made his turf debut when second beaten a neck in a 1 1/16-mile Keeneland turf allowance on April 20.

“He improved when we got him on the grass. I had been waiting to get him on grass for a long time and I finally did,” Toner said. “Last time, he ran well. I thought he would get up for third, but he was wide and the ground was a little too soft. He always tries and he tried that day. He’s a tough old guy. I think a mile and an eighth is his best distance. He’s knocking on the door and we’ll get there one of these days.”

Joseph Allen’s Kentucky homebred Siege of Boston returns to the site of his sixth-out maiden victory in November. The 4-year-old War Front bay came from 13 lengths off the pace before he unleashed a devastating late run in deep stretch to score by 3 1/4 lengths. Since his maiden score, Siege of Boston has picked up allowance optional claiming triumphs when going gate-to-wire on March 25 at Gulfstream Park and stalking the pace from fifth en route to a 5 1/2-length win on June 18 at Laurel Park.

Siege of Boston enters from a pair of placed efforts on the Kentucky circuit when third beaten one length in the Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Cup on August 6 going 10 furlongs at Ellis Park, one month before finishing second going one mile at Kentucky Downs.

“He was impressive last fall and he’s been right along all summer,” Toner said. “He’s run well every time we’ve run him, he’s been right there for us. He ran two good races in Kentucky. The race at Ellis, he maybe hung a little bit but when we cut him back at Kentucky Downs, he just couldn’t catch the winner. He’s been solid in every race he’s run in so far.”

Alice Bamford’s Kentucky homebred St Anthony [post 4, Javier Castellano] enters from a pair of victories over the Monmouth Park turf for Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale. Following a respective third and fifth going 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park, the 4-year-old Noble Mission gelding captured a July 28 allowance optional claimer at the same distance at Monmouth before earning his career third stakes triumph in the one-mile Red Bank on September 4.

St Anthony was a two-time stakes winner during his sophomore season, taking the Alcatraz at Golden Gate Fields and the Robert Dupret Derby at Santa Rosa.

Nice Guys Stables’ King Cause [post 2, Kendrick Carmouche] returns in pursuit of a repeat Knickerbocker conquest for trainer Mike Maker, looking to join Shady Character [1974-75], Charge d’Affairs [1999-2000], Boisterous [2011-12] and Blacktype [2017-18] as back-to-back winners. The 8-year-old son of Creative Cause set an easy tempo in last year’s Knickerbocker en route to a two-length score over dual graded stakes-winner Pixelate.

King Cause will look to get back to winning form, entering from two unplaced finishes after winning the Texas Turf Classic on June 24 at Lone Star Park.

Completing the field are graded stakes winner Master Piece [post 6, Irad Ortiz, Jr.] for trainer Rick Dutrow, Jr. and stakes-placed Wicked Finn [post 1, Junior Alvarado] for trainer Kelly Blake.