With Saint Liam pretty much established as the early favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), a competitive field of eight will line up for Saturday's $1-million Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) to determine who will pose the most serious challenge to the Woodward (gr. I) and Stephen Foster (gr. I) winner.
The three most likely candidates are Flower Alley, winner of the Travers (gr. I); Lava Man, who romped by 8 3/4 lengths in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I); and the late-running Borrego, winner of the Pacific Classic (gr. I). In keeping with the recent times, Flower Alley's trainer, Todd Pletcher, has entered a "rabbit." If he decides to run the swift Bishop Court Hill, it will be for the purpose of keeping Lava Man occupied.
The last time Pletcher was part of a rabbit plot was in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), when he utilized the early speed of Spanish Chestnut, who was trained by Patrick Biancone but owned by the same connections as the Pletcher-trained Bandini. The plan was to soften Bellamy Road for Bandini, but one of the numerous victims of Spanish Chestnut's blistering pace was none other than Flower Alley.
"I don't think it's going to be necessary (to run Bishop's Court Hill), but we put him in there to keep that option available," Pletcher said.
There are others in the Gold Cup with excellent credentials as well. Imperialism, third in last year's Kentucky Derby, will attempt to stretch out from his victory in the seven-furlong Pat O'Brien Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar, coming off a long layoff; Suave, winner of the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II) appears to be improving rapidly, and Sun King, recent winner of the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), looks to be reaching his peak. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Grand Reward, winner of the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. I) earlier in the year, rounds out the field.
Belmont Park is a notoriously speed-favoring track, and horses that come from way out of it, on most days, have little or no chance. Lava Man most likely will be on the lead, or, if Pletcher decides to run his rabbit, be sitting just off him. Bishop Court Hill drew post 2, with Lava Man in post 6, so the rabbit would have no difficulty getting the lead.
Flower Alley, a son of Distorted Humor
owned by Eugene Melnyk, not exactly devoid of speed himself, will not be far behind, breaking from post 4. And if Bishop Court Hill does pull a Spanish Chestnut, he could very easily cook his own stablemate, just as Spanish Chestnut did in the Derby. No one would love that more than the connections of Borrego, who has been coming from well out of it recently and needs some hot action up front. If he is to use that big, sweeping run he did in the Pacific Classic, he'll have to save ground on the far turn, and then look for a seam to get to the outside. Wide, sweeping moves are a kiss of death at Belmont, unless you're Forego.
As for Lava Man, he is a rags-to-riches colt who ran his eyeballs out in the Hollywood Gold Cup, then was so exhausted battling through fast fractions in the Pacific Classic, he returned rubber-legged and was vanned off after the race. Still, he fought to the wire, finishing third, beaten less than a length. It'll be interesting to see how he rebounds off that effort.
"He tried to hold on and he just got rubber-legged," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "By the time we got to him, he had already caught his breath. The horse ambulance was right there, so he just took a ride. The state vet said if they all looked like he did after a race, he'd be out of a job."
Lava Man, by Slew City Slew
is owned by STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood.
Another late closer shipping in from California is Imperialism, but, coming off a sprint victory, and making his second start off a layoff, he's going to be sharper than usual. This is a big jump for the Kristin Mulhall-trained colt, but a solid in-the-money performance here should set him up beautifully for the Classic. The son of Langfuhr
races for Steve Taub.
That brings us to the unknown factor, Tracy Farmer's Sun King, who is coming off a sensational victory in the Pennsylvania Derby, breaking from the 14 post, which is closer to the parking lot than it is the rail. Although he wasn't meeting horses anywhere near this caliber, for him to win by 4 1/2 lengths in spite of the horrible post, just may indicate that the son of Charismatic is finally turning into the horse many felt he was when they put him atop their list of Kentucky Derby contenders. He was impressive winning the Leonard Richards (gr. III) at Delaware Park in his comeback race, and might have won the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) last time out had he not found himself on an unwanted lead.
Suave, who drew the rail, and Grand Reward also have good tactical speed, and could help ensure a solid pace, even without the rabbit.
The field for Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup
PP. HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY WGT.
1 Suave Paul McGee Edgar Prado 126
2a Bishop Court Hill Todd Pletcher Chantal Sutherland 126
3 Borrego Beau Greely Garrett Gomez 126
4a Flower Alley Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 122
5 Sun King Nick Zito Rafael Bejarano 122
6 Lava Man Doug O'Neill Patrick Valenzuela 126
7 Imperialism Kristin Mulhall Victor Espinoza 126
8 Grand Reward D. Wayne Lukas Mike Smith 126