ELMONT, N.Y. – A wide-open field featuring 13 filly-and-mare turf specialists will make the Grade 1, $700,000 Longines Just a Game for 4-year-olds and up on the Widener turf one of the most competitive on the 13-race card on Saturday, Belmont Stakes Day.
With Eclipse Award-winner and 2015 Just a Game winner Tepin set to run in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes next week at Royal Ascot, a new title-holder will emerge in the 23rd running of the one-mile race on the Widener turf.
Trainer Mark Casse’s Lexie Lou, the Queen’s Plate winner and Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2014, will leave from post position 11 as the top earner in the field, amassing career earnings of nearly $1.6 million. The 5-year-old mare will be running back 13 days after notching her first win in more than 18 months in Woodbine’s Grade 2 Nassau Stakes.
“She’s an old pro,” Casse said. “We decided to cut her back because she had been so eager off the long layoff, and it worked – she was easier to rate.”
The turf courses at have seen some fast times in recent weeks, and the prevailing conditions for the Just a Game, one of six Grade 1 races on Saturday’s docket, could be favorable for Celestine, a filly with natural speed who won twice from as many starts on the Widener turf last year.
Judging from a wire-to-wire score in the Grade 2 Honey Fox last out, and subsequent bullet workouts, the Scat Daddy filly is better than ever at age 4. Celestine will leave from post position 8.
“I didn’t think [setting the pace in the Honey Fox] was any surprise, the way it looked on paper,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. “I thought they’d be running at her at the end, but she ended up running away from them.”
Mott, who has won the Just a Game four times starting with the inaugural edition in 1994, also entered Lady Lara and My Miss Sophia.
Faufiler, a royally-bred mare by Galileo out of 2003 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Six Perfections, has displayed fine form this year, first running down Celestine to win the listed Sand Springs in midwinter. She then rallied to finish second in the Grade 2 Royal Heroine last out at Santa Anita Park.
The local entrants should receive support as well, starting with Strike Charmer, Tapitry and Recepta, who ran 1-2-3 in the recent Grade 3 Beaugay, and drew the three inner-most positions for their rematch.
The late-blooming Strike Charmer has responded favorably to a lightened training regimen and some shoeing changes, and at age 6 is in the best form of her career, trainer Mark Hennig said.
“She really kicked well and I thought she put in a strong finish,” he said of her Beaugay performance.
Tapitry wintered at bucolic Payson Park for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and the gray daughter of Tapit won nicely over allowance company in early spring. Her runner-up Beaugay result was her best stakes finish.
Recepta checked sharply early in the Beaugay, and then made up ground late. That was her first local appearance since winning the Grade 3 Noble Damsel last September, after which Jimmy Toner was enthusiastic.
Recepta came within inches of a Grade 1 title two starts later when nipped in the Matriarch by 60-1 shot Stormy Lucy, and then was fifth in the Jenny Wiley on April 16 at Keeneland. Hall of Famer John Velazquez will be in the irons.
The Chad Brown-trained duo of Mrs McDougal and Rainha Da Bateria will also add to the field’s depth.
Mrs McDougal overcame a wide trip to win the Lake George opening day at Saratoga last year, and her seasonal debut at Aqueduct was a sparkling win over Strike Charmer in the Plenty of Grace.
Her stablemate Rainha Da Bateria was second best to Tepin in the Distaff Turf Mile in her first start for Brown, whose 17 wins topped the standings entering the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
Sandiva, whose fastest performance of 2015 netted her fifth place in the 2015 Just a Game, is back for another start. The Irish-bred import’s three wins in the United States for trainer Todd Pletcher have all come at Gulfstream Park.
Lending international intrigue is Irish Rookie, second in the Group 2 Ridgewood Pearl three weeks ago at The Curragh. La Berma and Prize Exhibit round out a diverse lineup.