It's not going to be easy separating the 10 horses entered in the $1 million TVG Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Sept. 29. The 1 1/4-mile event, having its 94th renewal, drew a competitive field of 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, and 6-year-olds, six of whom have already won grade I stakes. Two others are grade I-placed.
Among those entered for the Belmont Park fixture are the winners of the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Travers, Belmont Stakes, Whitney Handicap, Stephen Foster, Donn Handicap, and last year's Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The Bill Mott-trained Ron the Greek, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster this year, has been installed as the 5-2 favorite and will break from the rail under regular rider Jose Lezcano. The 5-year-old son of Full Mandate is owned by Wachtel Stable, Brous Stable, and his breeder and original owner Jack Hammer. Ron the Greek has managed to alternate between first and second in his last six starts. Coming off a second in the Whitney, he's due for another victory on Saturday.
Mott also has the second choice, Flat Out, last year's Gold Cup winner and third in the Whitney in his most recent start. The son of Flatter , owned by Preston Stables, is listed at 3-1 and will be ridden for the first time by Joel Rosario. Flat Out, who drew post 9, was previously trained by Charles "Scooter" Dickey, but was turned over to Mott early this year following three straight defeats.
Mott also took over the training of Ron the Greek last fall and the horse has not finished worse than second in his last eight starts.
"I'm very pleased with the way both of them are coming into the race," said Mott, who won the Gold Cup in 1995 with Cigar and used a second in last year's Gold Cup with Drosselmeyer as a springboard to a Breeders' Cup Classic victory.
"Flat Out has had a fair amount of time to get over the Whitney. We've had a nice training schedule since then, and obviously he's run well on the track before (winning the Gold Cup and grade II Suburban in 2011). I mean, that's got to be a bonus anytime you've got one running on any particular track, if they've already been a dual winner there.
"With any sort of honest pace in the race, Ron the Greek is a deep closer," Mott added. "Given the extra eighth of a mile, that should help him sustain his run."
Third choice at 7-2 is the Whitney winner Fort Larned, who also captured the grade III Cornhusker Handicap this year for trainer Ian Wilkes and owner Janis Witham. The son of E Dubai set a track record for 1 3/16 miles at Gulfstream Park earlier in the year, winning the grade III Skip Away in 1:53.92. He will break from post 5 under Brian Hernandez Jr.
"The Whitney is a very prestigious race, and it's an honor just to be in a race like the Jockey Club Gold Cup," said Wilkes. "I'm a little bit apprehensive about getting caught up in who's going to be at the 'head of the class.' I'm just trying to look at it as we've won one grade I race, we're trying to add another, and then finish up the year in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
"I couldn't be happier with the way he's coming into the race, and I don't think the distance will be a concern. These races are never easy, and there are some very good horses in there."
The Gold Cup also offers an automatic berth in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 3 as a "Win and You're In" race.
McGaughey, like Mott a Hall of Fame trainer, will be trying for his fourth Gold Cup victory with Hymn Book. He won the race in 1985 with Vanlandingham, in 1989 with Easy Goer, and in 1993 with Miner's Mark. A fast-closing fourth in the Whitney in his last start, Hymn Book opened his 6-year-old campaign with a nose victory over Mission Impazible in the 1 1/8-mile Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. His best effort before that was a second in the Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack last fall.
"Hymn Book's races here have always been good, and if he gets away well and is in the race then I think he'll have a big chance," said McGaughey. "He's doing really well, so we'll see. He was closing here going a mile and an eighth, so the extra distance might end up helping him while it might hinder some of the others. He's bred to run that far, so I don't think that will get in his way."
Hymn Book is listed at 5-1 on the morning line and will break from post 4 under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
Also in the field are two of last year's leading 3-year-olds, Ruler On Ice, winner of the Belmont Stakes, and Stay Thirsty , the Travers winner.
This year, the depleted 3-year-old crop will be represented by the Nick Zito-trained Fast Falcon, a fast-closing third, beaten a neck, in the Travers Stakes, and the improving Atigun, third in the Belmont Stakes and fourth in the Travers for Kenny McPeek.
Todd Pletcher, of course, will be well represented, sending out Stay Thirsty and San Pablo, who won the Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga Race Course prior to his impressive score in the Philip H. Iselin Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth Park.
The final horse is Game Ball, who is way overmatched, having run in claiming races and starter allowance races.
$1 Million TVG Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (gr. I, Race 10, 5:46 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Ron the Greek (FL), J Lezcano, 126, W I Mott, 5-2
2. Stay Thirsty (KY), R A Dominguez, 126, T A Pletcher, 12-1
3. Ruler On Ice (KY), A Garcia, 126, K J Breen, 20-1
4. Hymn Book (KY), J R Velazquez, 126, C R McGaughey III, 5-1
5. Fort Larned (KY), B J Hernandez Jr., 126, I R Wilkes, 7-2
6. Atigun (KY), M E Smith, 122, K G McPeek, 15-1
7. Fast Falcon (KY), C S Nakatani, 122, N P Zito, 12-1
8. San Pablo (KY), J Castellano, 126, T A Pletcher, 12-1
9. Flat Out (FL), J Rosario, 126, W I Mott, 3-1
10. Game Ball (KY), J L Espinoza, 126, N Chatterpaul, 50-1