The top three from the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap on August 4 are in the spotlight Saturday when they headline a surprisingly robust field in the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup. The historic 1 1/4-mile test tops a bumper card of Breeders' Cup preps on Belmont Park's "Super Saturday" program.
Fort Larned, a descendant of the Hall of Fame mare Bayakoa, officially rose to the ranks of the big leagues with his 1 1/4-length triumph in the Whitney. Deftly placed in the early stages by jockey Brian Hernandez, the four-year-old was well-positioned to get the jump on his closest pursuers, Ron the Greek and Flat Out, and held steady through the stretch to post a 7-1 upset.
With prior wins this season in the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap, Grade 3 Skip Away and Challenger, the Ian Wilkes trainee can enhance both his Breeders' Cup and champion older male credentials with another strong effort in the Gold Cup.
Ron the Greek leads a two-pronged challenge from the barn of Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Never worse than second in five starts this term, the five-year-old already owns wins this season in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, the former over the upcoming Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic's course and distance. His second in the Whitney was far from a bad effort, as he was more than six lengths down at the quarter pole and was forced to rally seven wide entering the stretch.
Flat Out, also trained by Mott, is the potential spoiler. A decisive winner of last year's Gold Cup and Grade 2 Suburban Handicap when under the care of Scooter Dickey, the Belmont-loving Flat Out floundered in a post-Gold Cup campaign before switching to the Mott barn last spring. The six-year-old has gradually improved in two starts for his new trainer, finishing second in a slow-paced Grade 2 Monmouth Cup over a mile before his solid third in the Whitney.
A trip to the Breeders' Cup is on the line for Hymn Book, who has generally disappointed since his victory in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap in February. Trainer Shug McGaughey is set to keep the Stuart Janney III homebred in New York without a more positive showing in the Gold Cup. Also on the fringes is San Pablo, the Todd Pletcher trainee who enters off scores against softer in the Grade 3 Philip H. Iselin and the Birdstone.
A pair of three-year-olds are among the cast of 10 in the Gold Cup, both with improving to do. Fast Falcon was a neck behind the dead-heating Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Grade 1 Travers August 25, but the race has subsequently proved not a strong renewal as the winners struggled in last week's Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby. Atigun, fourth in the Travers, has never won a stakes. His previous claim to fame was a respectable third in the Grade 1 Belmont in June.
Longshots in the Gold Cup include two of last year's leading sophomores, Stay Thirsty and Ruler on Ice. Stay Thirsty is winless since taking the 2011 Travers, while 2011 Belmont hero Ruler on Ice enters off back-to-back losses in allowance company.
The Grade 1, $400,000 Beldame will mark the fifth meeting between the leading older fillies Royal Delta and It's Tricky over 1 1/8 miles.
Royal Delta, who owns a 3-1 series lead against her rival, edged that foe in last year's Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic to earn champion three-year-old filly honors. The two remained separated this year, each compiling major wins, until the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Handicap on August 26, a race both wound up losing.The closest to upset winner Love and Pride was Royal Delta, who was rather washy in the post parade and appeared to be floundering for most of the stretch run before making a mild rally for place honors, a half-length behind the winner. It's Tricky ran arguably the best race of the two in defeat. Stumbling twice at the start, she was unable to apply pressure to the leaders until the quarter pole when she found a seam along the inside. Looking like she might contend for the win after all, her impressive bid sputtered almost as quickly as it began and she retreated to third at the finish.
In this rematch the edge might go to It's Tricky, who is undefeated around one turn and typically has more tactical foot than Royal Delta, who used the preparatory nature of the Beldame as a springboard to success in last year's Ladies' Classic. In the 2011 Beldame, Royal Delta finished more than eight lengths adrift of eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.
"Frankly, it's a race I'd like to get on my resume as well as hers," said Mott, who trains Royal Delta. "It's a race I have never won. I know I've run in it with three of my Breeders' Cup (Ladies' Classic) winners, and each has been beaten. So, do I hope I win it? I'd love to win it, but if I'm second, maybe it's (OK)."
Of the five other Beldame entrants, the most serious threat might come from Cash for Clunkers. The speedy filly nearly stole the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap in May before It's Tricky wore her down in the final furlong.