Belmont Stakes

Belmont Park Notes: Classic Empire Works for G1 Belmont Stakes

Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

ELMONT, NY – Assistant trainer Norman Casse wanted just an easy work as Classic Empire‘s last serious training for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

That’s what he got Friday morning, as last year’s 2-year-old champion worked the 1/2-mile in :50 flat at Churchill Downs in company with the older stakes-winner Airoforce. Churchill’s clockers caught Classic Empire going the first 1/4-mile in :24.30, 3/8 in :37.50, and a 5-furlong gallop-out time of 1:04 with regular exercise rider Martin Rivera in the saddle. Airoforce was timed in 52 seconds.

“Obviously, we’ve run in a lot of big races in a short amount of time, so we weren’t really looking for much – a 49, 50-type work,” said Casse, who oversees the Churchill Downs operation for his dad, trainer Mark Casse. “Just liked to see him on the bridle, see him with good energy, and see that he’s moving well, and he (checked) all the boxes. He worked really well this morning, and it’s all systems go.

“… Only thing I wish could have been different in the work – and I don’t think it has any significance on the way he’s going to perform – is that Airoforce would have worked better, because it would have given him more of a target. But you know what? Maybe he learned to put away horses.”

Classic Empire is scheduled to fly early Tuesday morning to New York. Also on the plane will be stablemates Awesome Slew, who worked a 1/2-mile in :47 for the Grade 1, $1.2 million Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Mile; World Approval, who went the same distance in :48 1/5 for the Grade 1, $1 million Woodford Reserve Manhattan; and Grade 1 Acorn-bound Salty, who ran :48 2/5 in company with Jersey Girl contender Pretty City Dancer. The rest of the sizable Casse contingent converging on Belmont Park will van Sunday.

Classic Empire’s sequence of issues over the winter – including a foot and back problem and a refusal to work at one point – resulted in him being shipped from Gulfstream Park’s satellite Palm Meadows training center to Mark Casse’s Ocala base, where he was reunited with Rivera. After starting the year with a third in Gulfstream Park’s Grade 2 Holy Bull, the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner was rerouted from running in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes to Oaklawn Park’s Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, resulting in a victory that made him the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby, though he was not the post-time choice.

Taken out of his gameplay after being sideswiped by outside horses two strides out of the starting gate, Classic Empire ran very well to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby. With a clean break, John Oxley’s colt and jockey Julien Leparoux were able to take the game to Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes. Always Dreaming began retreating with 3/8 of a mile to go, leaving Classic Empire alone on the lead, including a 3-length cushion with 1/8 to go. Cloud Computing swept up late to win by a head.

“Going into the Preakness, we were really excited that he was sitting on his A-plus race, having had the race in Arkansas and the Kentucky Derby,” Norman Casse said. “Now, with a big, big effort like he had in the Preakness, you’re always a little bit wary whether or not he’s going to regress a little bit. He hasn’t shown any sign of regression. He’s been on the bridle, he’s been happy. I just think, going into the Belmont, that we can be really confident that he’s going to run his A race again.”

Following are Norman Casse’s comments on his other Friday workers competing in New York stakes next week:

World Approval, coming into the Manhattan off of a victory in Pimlico’s Dixie: “This winter was a little bit of a challenge with World Approval. He didn’t seem his old self. We ran him in a state-bred race at Tampa, and he really ran awesome, better than we expected. I don’t know if a light bulb came back on or we woke him back up, but he’s been tremendous ever since. He ran an awesome race in the Dixie and worked well this morning. I’m really excited about the potential of winning another Grade 1 stakes with this horse on Belmont Day.”

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Awesome Slew, second by a head in the 7-furlong Grade 2 Churchill Downs: “Down at Palm Meadows, the first time I worked him, I was overwhelmed. I was like, ‘Wow, this horse is a serious racehorse.’ We decided to take the blinkers off, cut him back to 7/8-mile distances, thinking that might suit him better. It’s worked out really well the last three starts. The idea was to run him in the Met Mile all along, and right now, it seems like the plan is coming together really well.”

Salty, fifth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks: “Salty is just an awesome horse, a joy to train. She’s such a professional. She always puts a lot of effort into her work. You know she’s going to run her A-race for you; she’s never run a bad race. She had a tough trip in the Kentucky Oaks. We really want to get a Grade 1 win with her, and we think we have a big shot Saturday (in the Acorn)”.

Pretty City Dancer, fifth in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Eight Belles: “She’s been a real disappointment, there’s no other way to say it. She works like she’s one of the best horses we’ve ever trained. You get goosebumps watching her work, but she hasn’t seemed to put it together. I think we haven’t found out what her niche is – cutting her back to sprinting distance, we’re thinking that might be it. But she’s always worked well and you expect her to run well. We just have to figure out what she wants to do.”

True Timber Falls Off Belmont Trail; Dickinson Set for G1 Just a Game

Calumet Farm’s True Timber will not run in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, Kiaran McLaughlin said Friday morning. The son of Mineshaft was withdrawn early this morning after being diagnosed with a fever and will have to wait to make his eighth career start.

“He spiked a temperature yesterday,” McLaughlin said. “He didn’t eat, so we’re off the Belmont trail. Hopefully, he just misses a few days of training, but he certainly can’t run.”

True Timber finished third in the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard after a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

This year’s Belmont Stakes will mark 11 years since McLaughlin won the race with Jazil in 2006. The anniversary brings fond memories for McLaughlin, who will now be a spectator during the race’s 149th running.

“It was great when Jazil won,” he said. “It was very important for me. It’s my only American classic winner. It was great for Sheik Hamdan, Shadwell, a big owner of mine. To win the race was just fabulous. What I remember then that was interesting, (was everybody) talking about works. We didn’t work him a week out. Everybody thought we couldn’t win going (1 1/2 miles). He was fit from the Derby, and he worked two weeks out. We just got a little unlucky with the weather. He ran huge that day. Good memories.”

The McLaughlin barn will still be busy throughout next week and hopes to continue adding to the winning streak set by Godolphin’s Dickinson, who will run in the Grade 1, $700,000 Longines Just a Game on the June 10 program. The 5-year-old mare, in search of her fourth straight victory, took another step in her preparation for the race after breezing 4 furlongs in :48 3/5 at the Greentree Training Center.

Originally a dirt runner, Dickinson was entered on the turf for the first time in September 2016 at Parx. She responded with a 4 1/2 length victory, then repeated against tougher competition. Her next start was a disappointing finish in the Grade 3 Marshua’s River Stakes at Gulfstream Park, her first start this year. The Medaglia d’Oro mare then returned with Paco Lopez in the saddle and rattled off three straight victories in the Grade 3 Suwannee River, the Grade 2 Hillsborough, and the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley, respectively. McLaughlin is pleased with her progression, but the Just a Game may be her toughest contest yet.

“We’re excited, she’s doing great,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a very tough race, a good division. We’re happy that Lady Eli went out to California and won, but this is going to be a tough race. Anytime you run in a Grade 1, it’s going to be tough. You know that going in. It’s a Grade 1 for a reason. We’re just really happy for our filly. Paco Lopez is undefeated on her, and we’ll have him aboard. The mile should be fine. She’ll ship down next Friday, unless she has to come early.”

The switch to grass started a complete turnaround for Dickinson’s career, which featured just two victories from seven starts on dirt. Her pedigree and lackluster efforts prompted the change.

“She started not running so well,” McLaughlin said. “She’s by Medaglia d’Oro, which means she has both turf and dirt pedigree, but she’s out of Little Belle, who is all dirt so we kept on dirt, dirt, dirt, and finally switched over, and I’m glad we did. I mean, she’s five for six and a Grade One winner. It’s fabulous. Her last race, obviously, was great. She beat Lady Eli in a photo finish, and we had a lot of trouble in the race, but it worked out well.”

Pletcher Adds Patch to Belmont Contingent

Trainer Todd Pletcher confirmed that the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch will join stablemate Tapwrit in the Grade 1 Belmont after the pair worked 5/8 in company on Friday morning at Belmont Park.

Patch, with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard, worked on the main track inside of Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit, ridden by his regular jockey, Jose Ortiz. On even terms throughout, the pair hit the wire together in 1:01.45. NYRA clockers caught the pair in :37 for the first 3/8 and they galloped out 7/8 in 1:14 3/5.

“I was pleased with both of them,” said Pletcher. “I thought they went well. They seemed to get over the main track in good order. (It was a) good, steady, solid 5/8, with a pretty strong gallop out. I think we accomplished what we were looking for.”

“They’ve worked together before,” he added. “They have similar grinding-type styles, and they’re not overzealous workhorses, so they made a good pair.”

The move earned Patch, owned by Calumet Farm, the proverbial green light for the June 10 Belmont, Pletcher said afterwards.

“I was happy with the work today,” he said. “I had a quick exchange with the ownership, and they’re happy to run. As long as he comes out of it well, I plan to go.”

Exiting a 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, the famously one-eyed colt by Union Rags, whose ocular distinction marked him as the sentimental favorite in this year’s “Run for the Roses,” will be ridden by Velazquez in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

“(The Derby was a) tough assignment for him, a lightly-raced horse who draws the far outside post,” said Pletcher. “He got a decent trip out of it, I don’t think he relished the sloppy track. (He’s by) Union Rags, a Belmont winner, out of an A.P. Indy mare, there’s a lot of pedigree there to suggest that he’s bred to get the distance, and I think his style should fit the race well.”

Tapwrit and Patch were among a bevy of high-profile workers between the main track and training track for Pletcher Friday morning, including his Grade 1 Met Mile contenders Rally Cry and Tommy Macho.

Tommy Macho worked 5/8 in 1:03.56 on the training track with Send It In, on target for the Grade 2, $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational, while Rally Cry covered the same distance in 1:01.88.

“I think (the Met Mile is) a deep field, and I’m pleased with how both Rally Cry and Tommy Macho are doing, and who knows in such a large field how things are going to take shape,” said Pletcher. “I think Rally Cry is a horse we’ve always been really high on, it’s taken a little while to get to this point. We’re ready to step into a big race. And Tommy Macho has been a model of consistency. He shows up and runs hard every time.”

Sweet Loretta, a 3-length winner of her first start of the year in the Grade 3 Beaumont in April, breezed a :49.49 1/2-mile ahead of her bid in the Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn.

“I thought it was a particularly strong work from Sweet Loretta,” said Pletcher. “I think she’s improved this spring. She was always a filly that trained pretty well and won a lot of races as a 2-year-old, but she seems like she’s really come forward this year. I thought her race in the Beaumont was a breakthrough performance in terms of speed figures, and I think the way she’s training now is an improvement over how she trained as a 2-year-old.”

Pletcher added that his other Acorn nominee, My Miss Tapit, a 2-for-2 winner at Gulfstream Park this spring, is possible to skip the Acorn in favor of the Grade 2, $250,000 Mother Goose on July 1.

Impressive maiden winners Analyze Your Luck and Analyze the Odds, a pair of New York-bred 2-year-olds owned by Repole Stables and sired by Mike Repole’s Overanalyze, worked a 1/2-mile on the training track in :51.56 and :51.55, respectively, ahead of their stakes debut in the $150,000 Tremont on Friday, June 9.

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Back from Leg Fracture, Albarado to Ride J Boys Echo in Belmont

Robby Albarado, sidelined with a lower-leg fracture when unseated after the start of an April 23 race at Keeneland, will ride J Boys Echo in the Belmont Stakes, unless the jockey thinks he can’t do Albaugh Family Stables’ colt justice in the 1 1/2-mile Triple Crown finale.

Albarado will resume riding next Thursday at Churchill Downs, the day after entries are taken for the Belmont Stakes. He has been riding horses on his farm, and Friday morning, he galloped a couple for Romans. He is scheduled to work horses on Saturday morning, though not J Boys Echo.

“He’ll make the decision on whether or not he’ll be ready to ride 1 1/2 miles next Saturday,” said trainer Dale Romans. “… It’s one thing to be ready to ride an allowance race here going 1 1/16 miles, and another thing to go with classic horses, classic jockeys. I think we’re all pretty sure he can do it. We’re just looking if there’s something we don’t know. But we’re not expecting that he can’t, unless he comes back and says, ‘I need a few more days. You’d be better off with somebody else.’ If he tells me he’s ready, I’m going to believe he’s ready. If something goes wrong in the race, I’m not going to believe it’s because he wasn’t ready.”

“If I’m not ready, I won’t do that to Dale,” Albarado said. “If I feel I’m not ready, I won’t take a chance. I’m part of a team here. I’m pulling for them, whether I ride for them or not.”

The jockey, who was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year, said he doesn’t expect the Belmont’s marathon distance to be the issue. “Believe it or not, (that distance) is an easier race to ride than a 3/4 of a mile race,” he said. “You gallop for a mile, a mile and a 1/4.”

Asked about having to be in that crouched position that would have most people’s legs wobbling after 30 seconds, Albarado said in reference to his career mounts, “I’ve been in that crouched position 30,600 times.”

Albarado won Aqueduct’s Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on J Boys Echo, the pair subsequently finished fourth in Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass. But two weeks later, the jockey was sidelined with a fractured lower left tibia and fibula that required a rod and two pins being inserted. With Luis Saez aboard, J Boys Echo finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby after being waylaid at the start when a crush of horses careened into him.

Albarado said that his rehabilitation began only a few days after his April 24 surgery. Under the supervision of Fred Hina, the director of sports medicine for the University of Louisville’s men’s basketball program, Albarado began doing exercises, drills, and stretches to restore his strength, balance, flexibility, and range of motion. Hina was the New York Mets’ head trainer before joining Rick Pitino at U of L in 2001.

“He knows horse racing; he’s owned horses,” Albarado said. “He did things that would help me ride. I was doing things that I’d never been able to do before. I was sitting at the house, and Rick Pitino called and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m on the couch, about to go to therapy.’ He said, ‘Well, go see Fred Hina. I’m going to set you all up.’ I’d never met Fred before. I walked in and said, ‘Hey, I’m Robby.’ He said, ‘I’m Fred. Get on that middle table.’ Right away, he said, ‘We’re going to start off simple. But these simple things work, and eventually, we’ll get you where you need to be.'”

Albarado was kicked in the face by a horse in the paddock three days before he was to ride Animal Kingdom in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. He took off riding the Kentucky Oaks card in order to be 100 percent for Derby Day, but when jockey John Velazquez became available upon the scratch of 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo the day before the Derby, Team Valor president Barry Irwin opted to replace Albarado with Velazquez, who went on to his first Derby victory with Animal Kingdom. Albarado, however, showed his readiness to ride by winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Romans-trained Sassy’s Image on the Derby undercard.

“He told me he could ride, so we rode him,” Romans said.

Probable Contenders for Belmont Stakes

The combined addition of Grade 2 Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch and defection of True Timber looks to have at least nine contenders set for the 149th running of the longest and final leg of racing’s Triple Crown. Likely runners include Grade 3 Peter Pan runner-up Meantime, Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, and Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, pending workouts this weekend.

The three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, on June 8-10, is comprised of 15 graded stakes, including six Grade 1s on Belmont Stakes Day, worth more than $9 million in total purses.

Probable: Classic Empire (Mark Casse); Epicharis (Kiyoshi Hagiwara); J Boys Echo (Dale Romans); Lookin At Lee (Steve Asmussen); Meantime (Brian Lynch); Multiplier (Brendan Walsh); Patch (Todd Pletcher); Senior Investment (Kenny McPeek); Tapwrit (Pletcher); Twisted Tom (Chad Brown)

Possible: Gormley (John Shirreffs); Irish War Cry (Graham Motion)

Probables for Belmont Stakes Racing Festival

THURSDAY, JUNE 8:

Grade 3, $250,000 Intercontinental

Probable: Conquest Babayaga (C. Brown); Fair Point (Shug McGaughey); Josdesanimaux (Ralph Nicks); Lady Valeur (Patrick Gallagher); Mississippi Delta (Casse); Nobody’s Fault (Neil Pessin); Outsider Art (Jonathan Sheppard); Perfect Pic (James Cassidy); Portmagee (Christophe Clement); Rapid Rhythm (Michael Stidham); Ruby Notion (Wesley Ward); Take These Chains (C. Brown)

Possible: Miss Ella (Motion)

Grade 3, $200,000 Wonder Again

Probable: Coasted (Leah Gyarmati); Corporate Queen (Casse); Dream Dancing (Casse); Dynatail (Michael Dini); Enchanting Kitten (C. Brown); New Money Honey (C. Brown)

Possible: Journey Home (Motion)

$150,000 Astoria

Probable: Amberspatriot (John Hancock); Best Performance (Clement); Contrarity (Hugh McMahon); I Still Miss You (Jeremiah Englehart); One Last Cast (Pletcher); Sugar Queen (Pletcher)

Possible: Di Maria (Javier Negrete)

FRIDAY, JUNE 9:

Grade 2, $500,000 New York

Probable: Achnaha (George Weaver); Apple Betty (McGaughey); Dacita (C.Brown); Hawkmoor (Arnaud Delacour); Kitten’s Roar (Maker); Quidura (Motion); Sea Calisi (C. Brown); Suffused (Bill Mott); Summersault (Mark Hennig); Time and Motion (Jimmy Toner)

Grade 2, $250,000 True North

Probable: A.P. Indian (Delacour); El Deal (Navarro); Fellowship (Kenneth Decker); Green Gratto (Gaston Grant); Holy Boss (Asmussen); Noholdingbackbear (Lynch); Roy H (Peter Miller); Stallwalkin’ Dude (David Jacobson)

Possible: Whitmore (Ron Moquett)

Grade 3, $400,000 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational

Probable: Bigger Picture (Maker); Bullards Alley (Tim Glyshaw); Clondaw Warrior (Willie Mullins); Hunter O’Riley (Toner); Now We Can (Nick Clement); Patterson Cross (Mott); Red Cardinal (Andreas Wohler); Renown (Elizabeth Voss); Roman Approval (David Cannizzo); Some in Tieme (Kenny McPeek); St Michel (Sir Mark Prescott); Taghleeb (Maker); Wall of Fire (Hugo Palmer); Wicklow Brave (Bill Mullins)

Grade 3, $250,000 Bed o’ Roses Invitational

Probable: By the Moon (Michelle Nevin); Flora Dora (Maryalice Coffey); High Ridge Road (Rice); Indulgent (Kiaran McLaughlin); Lightstream (Lynch); Mia Torri (Jorge Navarro); Quezon (Robert Ribaurdo); Rachel’s Temper (David Cannizzo); Tale for Ruby (Barclay Tagg); Wheatfield (Nick Zito)

$150,000 Tremont

Probable: Admiral Jimmy (Pletcher); Analyze Your Luck (Pletcher) Analyze the Odds (Pletcher); Direct Dial (Asmussen); He Hate Me (Horacio DePaz); Presence of Mind (Weaver); Salmanazar (Pletcher); Wonder How (John Salzman)

SATURDAY, JUNE 10:

Grade 1, $1.2 million Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap

“Win and You’re In Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile Division”

Probable: Awesome Slew (Casse); Denman’s Call (Doug O’Neill); Economic Model (C. Brown); Inside Straight (Robert Diodoro); Mohaymen (McLaughlin); Mor Spirit (Bob Baffert); Rally Cry (Pletcher); Seymourdini (Linda Rice); Sharp Azteca (Navarro); Solid Wager (Miller); Tom’s Ready (Dallas Stewart); Tommy Macho (Pletcher)

Possible: Virtual Machine (Cannizzo)

Grade 1, $1 million Woodford Reserve Manhattan

Probable: Applicator (Mikhail Yanakov); Ascend (Motion); Beach Patrol (C. Brown); Divisidero (Buff Bradley); Potemkin (Wohler); Sadler’s Joy (Tom Albertrani); Time Test (C. Brown); Wake Forest (C. Brown); World Approval (Casse)

Grade 1, $750,000 Ogden Phipps

“Win and You’re In Breeders’ Cup Distaff Division”

Probable: Carina Mia (Mott); Factor of Faith (Joe Sharp); Highway Star (Rodrigo Ubillo); Paid Up Subscriber (C. Brown); Songbird (Jerry Hollendorfer)

Possible: Annie Rocks (Jason Servis); Bar of Gold (John Kimmel)

Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn

Probable: Abel Tasman (Baffert); Benner Island (Brad Cox); Florida Fabulous (David Fawkes); My Miss Tapit (Pletcher); Nikki My Darling (Dominic Giglio, Jr.) Salty (Casse); Sweet Loretta (Pletcher); Tequilita (Michael Matz); Union Strike (Mick Ruis)

Possible: Torrent (Moquett)

Grade 1, $700,000 Longines Just A Game

Probable: Antonoe (C. Brown); Celestine (Clement); Dickinson (McLaughlin); Prize Exhibit (James Cassidy); Roca Rojo (C. Brown); Sassy Little Lila (Cox)

Possible: Harmonize (Mott)

Grade 2, $500,000 Woody Stephens

Probable: American Anthem (Baffert) Aquamarine (Lukas); Classic Rock (Kathy Ritvo); Gold for the King (Charlton Baker); Hard Scramble (Asmussen); Long Haul Bay (C. Brown); Recruiting Ready (DePaz); The Money Monster (Mott); Wild Shot (Rusty Arnold, III.)

Grade 2, $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational

Probable: Doyouknowsomething (A.C. Avila); Behesht (Arnold, III.); Governor Malibu (Clement); Idolo Porteno (Ignacio Correas); Send It In (Pletcher); Sunny Ridge (Jason Servis); Tu Brutus (Gary Contessa); War Story (Navarro);

Grade 3, $300,000 Jaipur Invitational

Probable: Canadian Flyer (Mott); Conquest Enforcer (Giglio); Disco Partner (Clement); Green Mask (Cox); Hogy (Larry Rivelli); Holding Gold (Casse); Loose on the Town (Lynch); Pure Sensation (Clement); Stormy Liberal (Miller); Tombelaine (C. Brown), Undrafted (Ward); Why Two (Michael Machowsky)

Possible: Always Sunshine (Allard)

$150,000 Easy Goer

Probable: Giuseppe the Great (Zito); Local Hero (Asmussen); Sonic Mule (Pletcher); Super Dude (Rice); Tale of Silence (Barclay Tagg); West Coast (Baffert)

NYRA

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