Headed by national female sprint champion Musical Romance and multiple grade I winner Turbulent Descent, the $200,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap (gr. II) Sept. 22 at Belmont Park came up as an exceptionally tough race.
Nine of the 10 fillies and mares entered in the 6 1/2-furlong event are vying for an automatic berth for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I) on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park with entry fees and traveling costs paid as part of the Cup's "Win & You're In" challenge series. Turbulent Descent, who was confirmed as a starter in the Gallant Bloom by trainer Todd Pletcher, has already qualified for the championship race by virtue of her victory in the Ballerina Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 24 at Saratoga Race Course.
Besides Musical Romance, who has not been out since capturing the Princess Rooney Handicap (gr. I) July 7, and Turbulent Descent, several others help to make the Gallant Bloom lineup one of the best female sprint races of the year. There's Emma's Encore, who took the Prioress Stakes (gr. I) by a nose over Judy the Beauty, also entered, as well as the first two finishers from the Honorable Miss Handicap (gr. II), the victorious C C's Pal and Island Bound.
The field also includes recent stakes winners Mildly Offensive, Risky Rachel, Roman Treasure, and Dust and Diamonds.
The Gallant Bloom goes as the ninth race on the Saturday card with a 5:06 p.m. EDT probable post. Turbulent Descent is the 9-5 morning line favorite over Musical Romance, pegged at odds of 5-2.
Musical Romance, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan along with Pinnacle Racing Stables, had been penciled in for starts in both the Ballerina and the Presque Isle Downs Masters (gr. II) but transportation issues from south Florida stopped her both times. As a result, she has not raced since taking the Princess Rooney at Calder Casino & Race Course by a half-length. It was the 5-year-old daughter of Concorde's Tune's second win in five starts this year.
Kaplan sent last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner to Belmont by van Sept. 15. She blew out three furlongs in :35.89 on the main track Sept. 18. Musical Romance, who carries top weight of 122 pounds, is to have regular rider Juan Leyva aboard. The stalking filly drew favorably in post 9.
"We're ready to go," Kaplan said. "This year, we wanted to build towards running her again the Breeders' Cup. Now that she's a champion we didn't need to run in the smaller stakes."
Turbulent Descent, who carries 121 in the Gallant Bloom, won the Ballerina in her first start for Pletcher and new owner Michael Tabor. The former Southern California star was making her first start in more than two months and just her second appearance of the year. After clearing her five rivals by a couple of lengths in the stretch, the 4-year-old Congrats filly held on for John Velazquez while a bit sluggish late to win by 1 1/4 lengths. The victory was her fourth in a grade I.
Pletcher, who also entered Mildly Offensive in the Gallant Bloom, was considering training Turbulent Descent up to the Breeders' Cup but changed his mind.
"We felt like she came out of the Ballerina well and we still have six weekends from now until the Breeders' Cup," said Pletcher. "I think she may need another race to be really spot-on for the Breeders' Cup. She's in good form and doing well. It was nice winning the Ballerina with her, and it's pretty rare seeing a horse who can win Grade 1s at 2, 3, and 4. It's a special accomplishment."
Turbulent Descent worked a half-mile in :50.50 at Saratoga Sept. 16.
In her only prior start at Belmont, which came in June 2011 for trainer Mike Puype, Turbulent Descent ran second to It's Tricky on a muddy surface in the one-mile Acorn Stakes (gr. I). Velazquez is to be aboard the bay once again and they have the far outside post.
Pletcher's only prior win in the Gallant Bloom came in 2003 with Harmony Lodge. His second entrant this year, Mildly Offensive, is another Southern California transplant now racing for her breeder, WinStar Farm. The 4-year-old daughter of Sharp Humor previously was under the care of trainer Carla Gaines for owner Warren Williamson.
Mildly Offensive comes into the Gallant Bloom off a front-running half-length tally as the favorite in Saratoga's Big Bambu Aug. 31.
"We'll survey the draw and look at the race and decide whether we'll run Mildly Offensive or not," said Pletcher. "Looking at it in her case, she seems to specialize in running on wet tracks."
Ultra-consistent C C's Pal, trained by Rick Dutrow Jr. for owner Eric Fein, has had a bit of a break since she captured the six-furlong Honorable Miss at Saratoga Aug. 3 by a neck over the closing Island Bound. A 5-year-old mare by Alex's Pal, C C's Pal has won two of three starts at Belmont, including the Vagrancy Handicap (gr. II) at 6 1/2 furlongs June 2. In her past 10 starts, all in stakes company, the bay mare has not been worse than third while winning five. The Florida-bred will be ridden from post 5 by Alan Garcia.
"She's got a lot of heart," said Fein. "We've figured out she's best sprinting and we've kept her in one-turn races. Every horse should be like her. It doesn't matter where you run her, and while she's better sprinting you can also run her in routes. There are a million spots where you can run her."
Island Bound followed her big rallying effort in the Honorable Miss with a sixth-place finish in the Ballerina. Trainer Ian Wilkes said the 5-year-old Speightstown miss, winner of the Winning Colors (gr. III) at Churchill Downs June 2, disliked racing along the inside. But she draws post 2 here. Edgar Prado takes over for the injured Junior Alvarado.
The Gallant Bloom marks the return of Aug. 4 Prioress winner Emma's Encore at Saratoga. The 3-year-old Congrats filly makes her first stakes appearance against older rivals for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens and owner Brenda Mercer and Peter A. Berglar. Emma's Encore upset Belmont's six-furlong Victory Ride (gr. III) by nearly three lengths at 39-1 before the Prioress. The dark bay filly worked five furlongs in :59.17 in her final tune-up Sept. 16.
“We’re going to have to (try older fillies and mares) pretty soon, anyway,” said Jerkens, who previously won the Gallant Bloom in 1995 with Classy Mirage. “What are we going to do? You’re not going to win all of them, so you try hard and do the best you can do.”
Rosie Napravnik takes over on Emma's Encore for Alvarado.
Judy the Beauty, a daughter of Ghostzapper owned and trained by Wesley Ward, had the lead late in the Prioress but gave it up at the wire. She has worked well for her return, turning in a bullet five-furlong drill of 1:00.01 at Aqueduct Racectrack Sept. 14. The Ontario-bred chestnut filly will be making her Belmont Park debut with Joel Rosario aboard.
Padua Stables' Dust and Diamonds last started July 21 for trainer Steve Asmussen, winning a minor stakes at Delaware Park by 5 3/4 lengths. The 4-year-old Vindication filly has been working at Belmont for more than a month in anticipation for her graded stakes bow.
Black Swan Stable's Roman Treasure won a restricted stakes at Belmont in front-running style by two lengths July 8. She was a tiring sixth in the Honorable Miss last time after pressing the pace and leading briefly in the lane.
New York-bred Risky Rachel, trained by Juan Coronel, steps out of a front-running 3 1/2-length score in Saratoga's Union Avenue for state-breds Aug. 20.
$200,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap (gr. IIT, race 9, 5:06 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 6 1/2 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Roman Treasure (KY), J Lezcano, 115, M E Hushion, 20/1
2. Island Bound (KY), E S Prado, 116, I R Wilkes. 20/1
3. Dust and Diamonds (KY), J R Leparoux, 114, S M Asmussen, 12/1
4. Judy the Beauty (ON), J Rosario, 115, W A Ward, 6/1
5. C C's Pal (FL), A Garcia, 119, R E Dutrow, Jr., 8/1
6. Mildly Offensive (KY), C P DeCarlo, 116, T A Pletcher, 20/1
7. Emma's Encore (FL), R Napravnik, 116, H A Jerkens, 8/1
8. Risky Rachel (NY), J Castellano, 114, J M Coronel, 12/1
9. Musical Romance (FL), J C Leyva, 122, W A Kaplan, 5/2
10. Turbulent Descent (FL), J R Velazquez, 121, T A Pletcher, 9/5