With Saratoga still fresh in everyone's mind, Belmont's first big "Fall Preview" weekend is already here. On paper, Mineshaft looks virtually unbeatable in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I), but pay very close attention to Northern Rock, who should be rolling along on an uncontested lead.
It appears as if the Darley Stable 5-year-old has the front end all to himself, which is where his rider, Richard Migliore, loves to be. While Mineshaft is versatile enough to track the pace if he has to, he's only done it in :47 and change and :48 and change half-miles and 1:12 and change three-quarters. In the Woodward, he'll be dealing with a quick, hard-knocking veteran who is more than comfortable winging it out there in 1:10 and change. In the Whitney (gr. I), Northern Rock took the field along in :46 4/5 and 1:10 2/5 and still had enough left to give Medaglia d'Oro a tussle for a quarter of a mile. Although he did tire a bit, he still was beaten only 3 lengths.
In his first start in America after coming over from Dubai in June, he turned in one of the most brilliant performances of the Belmont Park meet, blowing the race open after three-quarters in 1:10 flat, then drawing off to win by 6 lengths under a hand ride. He covered the 1 1/16 miles in a swift 1:40 4/5. The horse he beat so decisively that day was none other than Puzzlement, who will be the likely second choice in the Woodward after his impressive score in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II).
It would be pretty brazen to say that Northern Rock will beat Mineshaft on Saturday, but at a decent price, he certainly is worth considering as a potential spoiler, especially with the turf-to-dirt angle going for him. "If we can get an easy lead, that's what we're looking for, for sure," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He's a very professional, sound horse, and he's been training very well."
Mineshaft has been off for two months, and is looking for the Woodward to move him along to the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), then the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). We are talking about one of the top three horses in the country whose best races probably are still ahead of him. He will be a short-priced favorite and deservedly so off his classy victory in the Suburban Handicap (gr. I), in which he merely toyed with last year's Classic winner Volponi. He no doubt is by far the best horse in the Woodward, but there are very few locks in horse racing, and Northern Rock is more than capable of surprising a lot of people.
No one has any idea what to make of Irish-trained Hold That Tiger, who most everyone was expecting to return for Kentucky Derby (gr. I) after his terrific effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But now he shows up four months later for the Woodward instead, following three uninspired performances in Europe. Trainer Aidan O'Brien basically is hoping for a good enough effort to bring him back in October for the Classic. O'Brien said Hold That Tiger ran a good race in the one-mile St. James's Palace Stakes (Eng-I), in which he finished fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths. Although he finished 9th in the subsequent Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I), O'Brien said that jockey Mick Kinane told him he ran much better than it appeared.
In Saturday's two other big races, watch out for the Barclay Tagg-trained Macaw in the $500,000 Man o'War Stakes. The 4-year-old Irish-bred gelding has turned in some big efforts in America, but hasn't had the best of luck. He was flying at the end of the recent Sword Dancer (gr. IT) after getting stuck in traffic down the stretch, while the winner, Whitmore's Conn, had a clean trip on the outside. One of these days, Macaw is going to have things go his way, and this could that day. He does pick up 12 pounds from the Sword Dancer, but at the price, he still is worth a close look.
The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Lunar Sovereign also is an intriguing horse in here, if you throw out his race in the Sword Dancer, and go back to his third, beaten a half-length, in the United Nations Handicap (gr. IT). And never ever throw out Michael Dickinson, who is one-for-one since taking over the training of Deelightful Irving, winner of the Pan American Handicap (gr. IIT) earlier in the year.
From a tactical standpoint, Balto Star, who is coupled with Deelightful Irving, should be on the lead from the start. Like the Woodward, there is no one capable of running with him early, so it is possible we could see a repeat of the United Nations, when he led every step of the way at odds of 37-1. He won't be near that price tomorrow, despite stopping to a walk in the Sword Dancer. But he was pressured in that race, and he won't be in the Man o'War, a race he almost pulled off last year under similar circumstances.
Denon and Whitmore's Conn will be the horses to beat, but Denon's move needs to be timed perfectly. The Sword Dancer fell apart for him, and Jerry Bailey won't let that happen again.
Finally, there is the Gazelle, and while we have several major stakes winners in the field, Lady Tak could be in a class by herself. She'll love the one-turn mile and an eighth, while Island Fashion and Spoken Fur will both be dropping back from a slowly run mile and a quarter. Island Fashion looks like a star in the making, but there's a question how sharp she'll be coming off the Alabama. The Shug McGaughey-trained Alchemist is undefeated in three starts and could be any kind, but this is a huge step up in class.
Of course, Bobby Frankel is always dangerous, but this looks like a Lady Tak – Island Fashion exacta.