The Japanese-bred Utopia, winner of the 2006 Godolphin Mile (UAE-II), makes his United States debut in the $100,000 Westchester Handicap (gr. III) as Belmont Park begins a 60-day spring/summer meet Wednesday.
The one-mile Westchester will be the 7-year-old Utopia's first start since winning the Godolphin Mile by four lengths more than 13 months ago. A field of six for Wednesday's opening-day feature also drew multiple graded stakes winners Sun King and Evening Attire.
By Forty Niner, Utopia was purchased from owner Kaneko Makoto by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and transferred to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. The Westchester is Utopia’s first race in the royal blue silks of Godolphin Stable.
“He came in at the end of November, right after we shipped to Florida,” said trainer Rick Mettee, who has overseen Godolphin’s U.S. horses the past few seasons. “As far as the layoff, there hasn’t been any specific reasons why he hasn’t run. He’s got no history of any negatives.”
Utopia has eight lifetime victories on the dirt and has excelled at a mile, winning five of eight starts.
“He trained very well in Florida,” Mettee said. “I expect he’s the kind of horse that’s going to come out running. He is seven now and we’ll have to see if he’s as good a horse as he was, but he has trained very well.”
Before Maktoum purchased him, Utopia was a regular in some big stakes races in Japan, winning a group I in his native of country in October of 2005 at Morioka.
Sun King may have had the toughest racing luck of any handicap horse in 2006. In May, he missed beating Silver Train by mere inches in the prestigious one mile Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I). Later in August, he fell a nose short of defeating eventual Horse of the Year Invasor in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I).
Now 5, Sun King is ready to make his first start since the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), where he finished 10th of 13 behind Invasor and Bernardini. Trainer Nick Zito, who won the 2003 Westchester with Najran, is hoping Sun King runs well Wednesday and then gets back to the $600,000 “Met Mile” at Belmont on Memorial Day.
“He took a little more time to get ready this year,” said Zito, who won Keeneland’s Commonwealth (gr. II) with Sun King in mid-April 2006. “He looks good and he’s training good. I want to get back to the Met Mile with him.”
Sun King, a closer, is 1-2-2 from six starts over Belmont Park’s main track. The 119-pound high weight, he has drawn post 4 with jockey Corey Nakatani.
Park Avenue Ball, a seven-time winner who might be the best New Jersey-bred in training, scored solid wins in the Skip Away and Iselin Handicap (gr. III) last summer at Monmouth Park. Park Avenue Ball also ran big in his 2007 debut, a narrow second behind the unbeaten Half Ours in Gulfstream’s Richter Scale Breeders' Cup (gr. II) March 3. Park Avenue Ball will be trying to put a sub-par fourth in the April 7 Artax at Gulfstream behind him.
Trainer Jim Ryerson said, “He won the Futurity at Belmont as a two-year-old and it’s a small field, so it looks like a good spot to take a shot.”
Grade I winner Evening Attire, who won Aqueduct’s Stymie (gr. III) as a 9-year-old in March, is racing far short of his best distance. He has drawn the rail.
Political Force had a productive winter in Florida for trainer H. Allen Jerkens and might get loose on the lead.
$100,000 Westchester Handicap (gr. III, Race 8, 4:40 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 Mile
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Evening Attire (KY), 115, Jose L. Espinoza
2. Park Avenue Ball (NJ), 118, Javier Castellano
3. Political Force (KY), 114, Cornelio H. Velasquez
4. Sun King (KY), 119, Corey S. Nakatani
5. Happy Hunting (KY), 114, Edgar S. Prado
6. Utopia (JPN), 117, Michael J. Luzzi