(Edited NYRA report)
William Farish's Mineshaft will be the marquee attraction on Saturday's Belmont Park card that will feature three grade I events. The 4-year-old colt will go for his third straight grade I win against four rivals in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes over 1 1/8 miles.
Regarded by many as the top handicap horse in the country, Mineshaft has won seven of nine starts since coming to America from Europe last fall.
The last time racing fans got to see Mineshaft was in the July 5th Suburban Handicap, which he won convincingly over Volponi. With seven races under Mineshaft's girth this year, trainer Neil Howard knew he would have to give the colt a freshening at some point if he wanted to make sure Mineshaft was at his best for the fall.
"We were very pleased with how everything went this summer," said Howard, who worked Mineshaft six times at the Spa. "Things were extremely smooth in light of the wet weather the first couple weeks of the meet. Every time I wanted to work him, we had a decent track to train on."
Plenty of attention will be focused throughout the fall on Mineshaft, Medaglia d'Oro and Candy Ride, the top Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) contenders.
"It's a really good division of older horses," Howard said. "My opinion on Medaglia d'Oro hasn't changed and there's a new player in Candy Ride that everyone has to take notice of."
From herein, Mineshaft will be running in weight-for-age races, which should play in his favor, especially in the Woodward. If it were a handicap, he might have to spot a less accomplished rival 10 pounds.
"He did okay carrying weight in the handicap races," Howard said. "But look at what happened in the Stephen Foster. He gave eight pounds to Perfect Drift, who is a very nice horse, and got beat a head."
Mineshaft was shipped to Belmont Park during the last week of the Saratoga meet. Although he proved he relished the Belmont surface in the Suburban, Howard wanted him to train over the track for a week.
Joseph Shields Jr.'s Puzzlement finished fourth behind Mineshaft in the Suburban, but since then, Puzzlement seems to have hit his best. In three races at Saratoga, he won a third-level allowance, was a good fourth in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) and scored an upset win in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II).
"I always thought he could win a stakes, but he hadn't proved me right until the Saratoga Breeders' Cup," Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens said. "You never know if that can continue or not. He looks the same and is feeling good."
When Puzzlement and Mineshaft met in the Suburban, Puzzlement was getting eight pounds. Saturday they will both have to carry 126 pounds.
"He could be a little better than he was in the Suburban, but he'll have to be a lot better, especially at even weights," Jerkens said. "It's happened before when I've been in weight-for-age races where the horse that beat me would have been getting 10 pounds from me in a handicap race."
Aidan O'Brien has sent Hold That Tiger, the third-place finisher in last year's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), across the Atlantic Ocean for a run in the Woodward. The Michael Tabor colt is 0-for-3 this year with his best finish a fourth in the group I St. James Place at Ascot in June.
O'Brien is taking some of the blame for a disappointing season so far.
"I made a few different moves in the spring that I wouldn't do again next year," the trainer said on a teleconference Tuesday. "We came back and gave him a break and freshened him up. We've been delighted with him since. He's probably been working better now than he's ever worked all year."
Hold That Tiger's last two starts, the St. James Place and the July 5th Coral Eclipse at Sandown, where he finished ninth, are better than they look on paper, according to O'Brien.
"He ran a really good race in the St. James Place," O'Brien said. "It looked like the horse was crying out to go farther than the mile.
"He was coming with a nice long gradual run," the trainer said when asked about the Coral Eclipse. "And he just got into a few bits of trouble on the bend."
Darley Stable's Northern Rock set the pace and stayed on gamely at 28-1 in the Whitney, only beaten three lengths.
PP, HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WGT.
1. Puzzlement, Allen Jerkens, Jorge Chavez, 126
2. Mineshaft, Neil Howard, Robby Albarado, 126
3. Northern Rock, Kiaran McLaughlin, Richard Migliore, 126
4. Thompson Rouge, Bill Mott, Jerry Bailey, 126
5. Hold That Tiger, Aidan O'Brien, Edgar Prado, 122