Carded as race 8 of 10 with an approximate post time of 4:45 p.m. EDT, the 1 3/8-mile Sheepshead Bay is the first of five graded stakes over the holiday weekend at Belmont, with Monday's May 27 Memorial Day card to feature the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), the $400,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I), the $300,000 Acorn (gr. I), and the $200,000 Sands Point (gr. II).
The Sheepshead Bay offers a chance for Hessonite and Strathnaver each to build three-race winning streaks while improving in company off grade III victories, and for Starformer and Mystical Star to return to winning ways.
New York-bred Hessonite, a 5-year-old daughter of Freud who races for William Punk Jr. and Phillip DiLeo, became a graded stakes winner last time out when she took the May 4 Beaugay Stakes (gr. III) by three-quarters of a length. The 1 1/16-mile Belmont event was won with a sharp late surge after angling out from behind a wall of horses in the stretch.
Hessonite took that race off the layup, her most recent prior start a win in the Oct. 20 Ticonderoga Stakes at Belmont going the same distance on yielding turf. The Beaugay was also her first stakes score in open company. Jockey Junior Alvarado has the call from post 5 aboard the David Donk trainee, who last year won the John Hettinger, Yaddo, and Irish Linnet consecutively after taking the Ticonderoga in 2011.
Hessonite will face a talented group in the Sheepshead Bay, six of whom began their careers in Europe, including the Graham Motion-trained duo of Strathnaver and Julie's Love, and Juddmonte Farms' multiple graded stakes winner Starformer from Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
"It's a competitive field, but it will give us a little line on what path we want to take with her this summer," Donk said of Hessonite, the champion New York-bred older mare of 2012. "She's been training well; she had a nice breeze the other day (six furlongs in 1:14.50). We'll see what happens."
Strathnaver, a 4-year-old daughter of Oasis Dream who is 4-1 on the morning line, was sent to Motion's barn this year after winning two races and registering a second from nine starts in Great Britain. Her American debut came in March at Gulfstream Park, where she scored a three-quarter-length victory in a 1 3/16-mile optional claimer. A month later she became a graded stakes winner with an 18-1 upset of the 1 1/2-mile Bewitch Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland.
Motion, who won last year's Sheepshead Bay with Aruna, also has entered 5-year-old Julie's Love, sharp winner of the 1 1/4-mile Owsley overnight stakes for Bobby Flay, Irving Cowan, and Barry Weisbord at Belmont May 1. Bred in Great Britain, where she began her career, the Ad Valorem mare came to the United States last year and fashioned a 3-2-1 record from seven starts, including a half-length victory in the De La Rose at Saratoga Race Course.
Jockey Joel Rosario returns aboard Strathnaver, who drew post position 6, with Javier Castellano named to ride Julie's Love, weighted at 116 and 6-1 on the morning line, from the 2 hole.
Starformer had a strong pair of back-to-back victories to her credit in the Nov. 10 Long Island Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Aqueduct Racetrack and in Gulfstream Park's The Very One Stakes (gr. IIIT) Feb. 16. She gave way in the stretch of the March 30 Orchid Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream, however, and will have to rebound from a fifth-place finish there. Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado gets the mount on the 5-year-old daughter of Dynaformer, 7-2 on the morning line, from the rail.
Trainer Christophe Clement will try for his fifth career victory in the Sheepshead Bay with Mystical Star, who rebounded from a disqualification in last year's edition to take the New York Stakes (gr. IIT) last June. Cheyenne Stables' Ghostzapper mare is winless since then, having opened her 5-year-old campaign with a third in the Hillsborough (gr. IIIT) at Tampa Bay Downs, then a fourth as the favorite in the Doubledogdare (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland. She missed catching Starformer by a neck in the Long Island Handicap last November.
"She got beat the other day at Keeneland; I think she's a better filly for the race," said Clement. "Unfortunately, the race will be very competitive, but that's the way it is. She's doing well."
Jose Lezcano will ride Mystical Star, 5-1 on the morning line, from post 7.
Finishing fourth in her stateside bow was 15-1 shot Anjaz, who rallied from ninth in the Orchid March 30 at Gulfstream Park. The Godolphin Racing color-bearer, 1-0-1 in five starts in Great Britain, has been training forwardly for Tom Albertrani, most recently breezing five furlongs in 1:03.78 at Belmont May 17.
"I thought she ran well in that race, considering she got off to a poor start," said Albertrani. "It took her out of her game, as she likes to be closer. She managed to make up a lot of ground despite that, and finish strong. I'm hoping with that one race we can move forward off that."
Rounding out the field are Richard Santulli's Irish-bred Tannery, fourth to Julie's Love in the Owsley, and Northern Bloodstock's French import Minakshi, second by a half-length in the Owsley in her first North American start.
$200,000 Sheepshead Bay Stakes (gr. II, Race 8, approximate post 4:45 p.m. EDT), fillies & mares 3YOs & Up, 1 3/8 miles (turf)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Starformer (KY), E.S. Prado, 120, W I Mott, 7-2
2. Julie's Love (GB), J. Castellano, 116, H G Motion, 6-1
3. Tannery (IRE), L. Saez, 118, A E Goldberg, 8-1
4. Aniaz (KY), I. Ortiz, Jr., 116, T Albertrani, 15-1
5. Hessonite (NY), J. Alvarado, 120, D G Donk, 5-2
6. Strathnaver (GB), J. Rosario, 120, H G Motion, 4-1
7. Mystical Star (KY), J. Castellano, 120, C Clement, 5-1