Sent off the 4-5 choice in a field of five older horses after Patterson Cross, Twilight Eclipse, and Highland Sky were scratched, the 5-year-old daughter of Fastnet Rock rated well early off a crawling pace set by Charming Kitten.
"She gives you so much confidence," said John Velazquez, who rode the Irish-bred mare in her North American debut for trainer Dermot Weld. "She broke well and there really wasn't much speed in the race on paper. They told me she likes to be close to the pace and with no pace at all, I knew she was going to break great and be right there. She handled the grass really well and coming from Europe you could tell she was used to this type of surface. When I asked her to run down the lane she had another gear."
Zhukova spotted Charming Kitten a length while that one strolled through the opening half-mile in a leisurely :56.45, with three-quarters going in 1:24.16. After a mile in 1:49.69, the bay mare loomed outside and effortlessly took the lead around the far turn.
Velazquez gave his cue as they reached the top of the stretch and Zhukova answered without hesitation, accelerating through the lane under a hand ride to win by a half dozen lengths over Taghleeb.
Zhukova completed the 1 3/8-mile test on yielding ground over Belmont's inner turf course in 2:25.31. She returned $3.80, $3.40, and $2.40, while Taghleeb paid $6.10 and $3.60. Sadler's Joy ($3) completed the trifecta, followed home by Charming Kitten and Wake Forest.
The win was the seventh overall from 10 starts but the first grade 1 for Zhukova, who has twice beaten males in stakes in her native Ireland and came in off a victory in the April 15 Irish Stallion Farms E.B.F. Noblesse Stakes. Bred by Mrs. C. L. Weld out of the Galileo mare Nightime, she was a $912,700 RNA from the 2013 Tattersalls October yearling sale. She gave Weld his first Belmont stakes victory since the 2003 Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes (G1T) with Dimitrova, and became the first female to win the Man o' War since Waya in 1978.
"We're absolutely over the moon with that," said Mark Weld, assistant trainer to his father. "It was a major target over the last few weeks. The rain came, which was a huge help. Johnny was very complimentary about her. He said she could have a future here. She'll come home now but the (Breeders' Cup) Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) would be a definite possibility to finish off the year.
"I was concerned with the fractions; my big fear is that it would happen and that she would get caught," he added. "But her class won out. She's a true European grade 1 mare. We've known she's a good mare for a little while. You don't beat the Breeders' Cup winner Found very easily, and she beat her pretty handily (in the 2016 Coral.ie Alleged Stakes). She's a homebred; we've had her since she was a foal bred by my grandmother. This is huge for us today. We have a lot to look forward to."