By Karen M. Johnson
Belmont Park ushers in its 59-day spring/summer meet April 30, on the heels of a tumultuous winter for the New York Racing Association.
NYRA is still working under a temporary agreement to operate the franchise at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, while it awaits approval from a federal court to emerge from bankruptcy. In February, a bill was signed by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, granting NYRA a new 25-year franchise.
The opening of Belmont Park traditionally spells the start of quality racing in New York. The focal point of the meet is the $1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 7. The 140th running of the Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown, has already generated intrigue with Japanese invader, Casino Drive, scheduled to run in the 1 ½-mile race. The significance of this global participation is that Casino Drive was foaled by Better Than Honour, the dam of the last two Belmont Stakes winners, Jaziland the filly Rags to Riches.
Casino Drive, a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft , and stablemate Spark Candle, a 3-year-old son of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy out of Hall of Famer Serena’s Song, are scheduled to arrive at Aqueduct’s quarantine barn April 30. Casino Drive’s first target is the Peter Pan (gr. II) May 10. Plans for Spark Candle have yet to be announced. Both horses are owned by Hidetoshi Yamamoto and trained by Kazuo Fujisawa.
Five graded stakes comprise the Belmont Stakes undercard: The $400,000 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT), $400,000 Just a Game (gr. IT); $250,000 Acorn (gr. I); $250,000 True North Handicap (gr. II); and the $250,000 Woody Stephens (gr. II).
A total of 38 stakes (not counting overnight stakes) will be run during the course of the meet, including 29 graded events.
An important change to the stakes calendar is the restoration of the $200,000 Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) to the spring/summer meet. The Brooklyn, which had been run during Belmont’s fall meet for the past two years and at the distance of 1 1/8 miles sine 1994, returns to 1 ½ miles and will be contested June 6. The Brooklyn’s new placement and its increase in distance, positions the race as a marquee summer event in the handicap division, and as a steppingstone to the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Santa Anita Park Oct. 25.
Another significant stakes schedule alteration is the discontinuation of the Bowling Green, a grass race for males. Replacing the Bowling Green is the $500,000 Man o’War (gr. IT), which has been moved from the fall meet to July 12.
Aesthetically, fans will notice refurbishments to the exterior and interior of Belmont Park, including bathroom renovations in the clubhouse, a new simulcasting center in the clubhouse, the creation of a lounge for members of NYRA’s account wagering rewards program, and improvements in the press box.
The return of twilight racing on Fridays at Belmont begins June 13 and concludes the final Friday of the meet, July 18. Post time for the first race commences at 3 p.m. With the exception of a 12 p.m. first post on Belmont Stakes Day, all other cards will begin at 1 p.m.
The stakes action kicks off opening day with the $100,000 Westchester Handicap (gr. III). The mile race for 3-year-olds and older horses drew a field of six. The likely favorite is the Neil Howard-trained Grasshopper, the runner-up to Street Sense in last year’s Travers (gr. I).
Grasshopper, owned by Will Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr., was assigned highweight of 119 pounds and will be ridden by Robby Albarado from post 3. Grasshopper’s challengers are Saint Daimon, Miner’s Lamp, Mr. Umphrey, Divine Park, and Sightseeing.
Grasshopper, a son of Dixie Union, enters the Westchester in top form. This year, he won the Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) at Fair Grounds by 2 ½ lengths and finished second, beaten a neck, to Circular Quay in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II).
Howard said he has an eye on the $600,000 Metropolitan Mile Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont May 26 for Grasshopper, and believes the Westchester is a good spot to give him and the colt’s owners a feel for how he handles the one-turn mile.
“Mr. Farish and I wanted to visit the possibility of looking at the Met Mile,” Howard said April 28. “We thought we have seen that side of him (to handle the mile). He has a nice stalking style and a good punch at the end. We thought, why not do this now over the track the Met Mile is run.
“I thought his race in the New Orleans Handicap was very good. It was kind of a tough race. He had early pressure and couldn’t get a breather, as they say. He got a bit late, and was caught by Circular Quay. “