Za Approval, runner-up to two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), tops the seven-horse field that will contest the $300,000 Poker Stakes (gr. IIIT) on the May 26 Memorial Day card at Belmont Park.
Trained by Christophe Clement for owner-breeder Live Oak Plantation, millionaire Za Approval will have Joel Rosario back aboard as the son of Ghostzapper seeks to find the winner's circle for the first time since his Knickebocker (gr. IIIT) victory at Belmont last year prior to the Breeders' Cup. In the BC Mile, Za Approval led late before finishing just three-quarters of a length behind Wise Dan.
Clement said Za Approval will run in the Poker unless there is rain that softens the turf course too much. The 6-year-old gelding has fourth-place finishes in two grade I turf stakes—the Frank Kilroe at Santa Anita Park and the Maker's Mark 46 at Keeneland—in as many starts this year,
"As long as the ground is not too soft, Za Approval will run," said Clement. "He loves it firm. I ran him a little bit unfit in California first time out (in 2014) and he went off form in Kentucky, though I'm not exactly sure why. He came back here (to Belmont) and seems to be doing well."
Rosario and Za Approval will break from the 6 post under top weight of 122 pounds.
Justice Family Racing's Peace and Justice ships to New York from Southern California for John Shirreffs for his graded stakes debut in the Poker. The War Front colt with penchant for running as fast and as far as he can has also shown a particular affinity for races at one mile; he's won three of five starts at the distance.
With newly minted Racing Hall of Fame jockey Alex Solis in the saddle for the first time in the 4-year-old colt's six-race career, Peace and Justice will carry 120 pounds and break from the 3 hole.
Also toting 120 will be Big Screen, Dogwood Stable's son of Speightstown who finished third in last year's Poker. The 5-year-old horse trained by Tom Albertrani will be ridden by Junior Alvarado, who was the pilot when Big Screen won the Who's to Pay Stakes at Belmont last fall. Big Screen will be making his seasonal debut in the Poker.
Jack Milton , a Todd Pletcher-trained son of War Front , won the Transylvania (gr. IIIT) last year before a run of consecutive third-place finishes that included the grade II Virginia Derby and Secretariat (gr. IT) and Jamaica Handicap (gr. IT).
The Poker also drew Bio Pro, a former Southern California runner now trained by Bill Mott; Plainview, who finished second in last year's Knickerbocker; and Sinatra, a Harlan's Holiday gelding who was eighth in his only stakes outing in the 2012 Calder Derby.
Jack Milton and Bio Pro race as a coupled entry for owner Gary Barber.
$300,000 Poker Stakes (gr. III, Race 8, approximate post time 4:57 p.m. EDT), 4YOs and Up, 1 mile (turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Peace and Justice (KY), A O Solis, 118, J A Shirreffs
2. a-Bio Pro (KY), J R Velazquez, 116, W I Mott
3. Plainview (KY), J Lezcano, 116, G DiPrima
4. Big Screen (KY), J Alvarado, 120, T Albertrani
5. a-Jack Milton (KY), J Castellano, 120, T A Pletcher
6. Za Approval (KY), J Rosario, 122, C Clement
7. Sinatra (KY), R Maragh, 118, J J Jerkens
a-Gary Barber-owned entry.