ELMONT, NY – Amerman Racing’s Oscar Performance led every step of the way to win the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational at 1 1/4 miles on the inner turf, capping off the fourth annual Stars & Stripes Racing Festival at Belmont Park.
The speedy Kitten’s Joy ridgling was sent to the front by jockey Jose Ortiz after banging off the side stall at the break. Both were allowed to remain content while in hand through splits of :23.96 seconds and :49.48 while the California shipper Big Score, the Irish-bred Called To The Bar, and the Japanese-bred Yoshida patiently stalked.
Ortiz led the field of 11 through a geared-down 3/4 of a mile in 1:14.37 and a mile in 1:37.35, guiding Oscar Performance into the stretch for the expected onslaught. Instead, Oscar Performance found another gear and held off Called To The Bar to win by two lengths in 2:00.25. The Kentucky-bred European shipper Homesman – one of two entered for Irish trainer Aidan O’ Brien – closed well from mid-pack to earn the show spot.
Oscar Performance’s victory was the second on the day for trainer Brian Lynch, who teamed with Jose’s brother Irad to win the fourth race with Munchkin Money. The Australian-born trainer, who is enjoying a successful Belmont Spring meet, kept a watchful eye on the toteboard clock as well as his horse.
“When he broke a tad slow and he urged him a little bit to run up there and I saw the :23 and change, I thought, ‘I hope it doesn’t turn into one of these sort of deals,'” Lynch said. “When the :49 and change came up, I started to grin a little bit, and when I saw the 1:14 and change come up, I broke into a big smile. When he inched away from them in the lane, I could see they were all throwing leather behind him. I thought, ‘He’s going to be tough to catch from here.’ He proved he can get the mile and a 1/4, and I think he beat a quality field of horses today.”
The ability to handle the distance was one question that Lynch was waiting to answer in the Belmont Derby, but the other regarding what type of course he would run on was in the hands of Mother Nature. Rain penetrated the area on Friday, making for a softer turf course – one that has hindered Oscar Performance’s effort in the past.
“It has some give to it, but no more give than the Pilgrim (Grade 3 at Belmont Park) last year,” Lynch said. “It has been hard and firm all week; they’ve been running fast times. I took a bit of walk on it today and it has a bit of a kick to it. You don’t sink into it too far, so I knew it was going to be firm. I couldn’t have been happier with it.”
The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner is now perfect through three starts on Belmont’s inner turf after wiring the field in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge as a prep to the Belmont Derby. The steak began last fall with a 6-length victory in the Grade 3 Pilgrim.
Oscar Performance’s fifth victory has put him over the million-dollar mark, earning $1,497,632 from eight starts. The trip to the winner’s circle was the fourth of five on the day for Jose Ortiz, who swept the early double with Master Merion and Bonita Springs, then won the Grade 2 Suburban with Keen Ice, and capped the day with California Swing in the nightcap.
“It was a great day,” Ortiz said. “When you win one, it’s a good day, so when you win like today and with two of the five being very big races, it’s great. I’m very happy with the way the horses in each of my races ran. I’ve been fortunate to have a great Spring and Summer meet. I won the Belmont Stakes, the Belmont Derby, and the Suburban here today, and I’m fighting on the standings, so hopefully, I can get the meet title.”
Carina Klingberg Hanson and Pia Brandt’s Called To The Bar gave the Swedish-born, French-based trainer Brandt her second runner-up finish from as many starts at Belmont Park since saddling Rymska in last year’s Grade 3 Miss Grillo on October 2. The connections were pleased with the Henrythenavigator gelding.
“We think he ran a great race,” said Carl Brandt, Pia’s assistant trainer and husband. “He was just beaten by a better horse. The winner won pretty easy. He ran well.”
Good Samaritan checked in fourth, followed by Yoshida, Makarios, Whitecliffsofdover, Big Score, Ticonderoga, Senior Investment, and Arklow.
Oscar Performance returned $13, $6.90, and $4.80. Called To The Bar brought back $8.10 and $5.10, while Homesman paid $8.30 to show.