Belmont Notebook: Three Key Stakes
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by John Mucciolo
(Editor's Note: Content for this handicapping notebook is provided by Brisnet)

Although the stakes action has slowed considerably at Belmont Park with much of racing's focus on the upcoming Breeders' Cup, we still had time for a trio of exciting stakes events last week. A field of eight went postward on Saturday in the $110,100 Lawrence Realization S. (G3) for three-year-olds on the lawn. Racing over a yielding course and traveling 1 1/2 miles, this would be a true test of stamina.

Denise and Thomas Walsh's homebred GUNNING FOR (Dove Hunt) took advantage of a swift pace by circling his competition four-wide and drove home to a half-length win for trainer Timothy Walsh and jockey Joe Bravo. The gelding, who was running for a tag four races prior, finished up 12 furlongs in 2:29 4/5 in earning his first stakes tally. Much credit should also go out to Bravo, who patiently waited and made his move at precisely the right time.

Rousing Victory (Victory Gallop), the 7-5 choice in here, did not endure the most comfortable of trips yet ran on well in the stretch to threaten the winner late. Second Performance (Theatrical [Ire]), who disputed the quick splits early on, did well to retain show honors.

Sunday's stakes action was headlined by six juvenile fillies going 6 1/2 panels in the $108,000 Astarita S. (G3). TOLL TAKER (Bernstein) was exiting a pair of wins at Monmouth Park, her last by 10 lengths, but was slightly ignored at the windows and was sent off a healthy 6-1 for conditioner Timothy Hills.

Turning for home, Eibar Coa urged his mount three wide and from there it was just a matter of how much the bay would win by. Toll Taker was 3 1/4 lengths clear at the wire and completed her first graded score in 1:18.

Im a Dixie Girl (Dixie Union), the 8-5 betting choice, put in a good effort but could muster only the place, while 2-1 second choice Summer Raven (Summer Squall) got third.

In the race immediately preceeding that one, five colts traveled the same distance in the $78,988 Cowdin S. FLAMENCO (Dance Master), third in the Hopeful S. (G1), didn't disappoint those who backed him at 1-2 when taking this one for Todd Pletcher and Jerry Bailey.

Always prominent, the winner made his move as they entered the turn for home and cruised from there, stopping the teletimer in 1:17 1/5 over the fast surface. Recent maiden winner Better Than Bonds (Sweetsouthernsaint) closed very well from off the pace to earn his initial graded placing. Upscaled (Sir Cat) had trouble at the start but finished quite respectably to grab the show spot.

CURRENT LEADERS

John Velazquez continues to dominate the jockeys' standings in New York and his lead has grown considerably as of late. The star rider has compiled 50 wins, with his nearest rival, Cornelio Velasquez, having bagged 30. Trailing the top pair are Javier Castellano (29), the oft-traveling Edgar Prado (26) and Richard Migliore (25).

Pletcher has parlayed a pair of good weeks with a healthy dose of runners to take over sole possession on the trainers' front. With 20 winners saddled to date, his lead over Richard Dutrow and Bruce Levine has grown to six, with each of his nearest challengers sending out 14 winners. Levine is hitting at a 37 percent win clip, with Dutrow (33 percent) and Pletcher (27 percent) doing well in that department as well. Bobby Frankel leads all conditioners with $1,559,265 in purses earned.

"CHALK WATCH"

A total of 37 races were contested over the past four days of racing, with 16 winners being favored (43 percent). This number is not unusual, but likely is getting annoying to the longshot player. Combined with six second-choices crossing the line first, the top two in the wagering won nearly 60 percent of all races.

The turf appears to be the place find a price in the winner's circle, with just two favorites winning nine grassy races (22 percent). In addition to that, the winners returned $2 win mututels of $38.80, $34, $24.60, $22.20, $19.80, $13.60, $6.60, $5.60 and $3.50 -- an average of nearly $19 for each $2 win bet.

TRAINER TO WATCH

Shug McGaughey has been sizzling as of late and should merit attention each time he sends out a runner. The conditioner has hit with 35 percent of his starters (9-26), and sports a super 69 percent in-the-money rate. He's been especially sharp with those from the mighty Phipps Stable, winning eight of 15 races (53 percent).

HORSES TO WATCH

Thursday (10/14)

2ND -- COAST LINE (Boston Harbor) returned from more than 14 months off to run huge, drawing off by 10 1/2 lengths under the wire. The gelding stopped the clock in 1:10 (including a final quarter in :24), a superb final time considering the other pair of maiden races stopped the timer in 1:11 4/5. The bay three-year-old was also the only horse on this day to win in wire-to-wire fashion.

4TH -- SMUGGLER (Unbridled) lived up to her pre-race hype with a thrilling finish late for McGaughey. The impeccably bred debuter had just one beat at the half-mile marker, but ran past them late like they were standing still. The time was nothing to write home about, but the manner in which it was done was exceptional.

Friday (10/15)

7TH -- CAPE GOOD HOPE (Cape Town) showed speed, dropped back, came on late and just got outfinished for the win in what was a brave effort under a mysterious ride. The four-year-old was sharp at two and may be returning to his juvenile form.

Saturday (10/16)

5TH -- MALHEUR (Saint Ballado) was under a hand ride virtually the entire race and is starting to show the reason he's been odds-on in two consecutive outings. The juvenile's time was average but he could excel at two-turn racing, and is surely one to watch into 2005.

GOING WILD (Golden Missile  ) made the lead in here and stayed on well to garner place honors. The expensive colt shouldn't be a maiden much longer.

Sunday (10/17)

8TH -- Toll Taker has now reeled off three consecutive facile wins and appears to be getting better and better. I'm not sure how strong the field was in the Astarita, but Toll Taker's future should be bright as the distances increase.

A LOOK AHEAD

The spotlight will be on Empire State-breds this weekend at Belmont, with a total of nine stakes races on tap. The 1 1/8-mile, $250,00 Empire Classic headlines the racing.

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