The $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park Sept. 28 will provide racing fans with a couple of intriguing angles: the battle for divisional honors in two categories and an unprecedented attempt at three consecutive Gold Cup victories since the distance was changed to 1 1/4 miles.
First, there is the old warrior Flat Out, the 7-year-old son of Flatter who will be seeking his third straight victory in the Gold Cup. Trained by Bill Mott, Flat Out has proven his affinity for Belmont Park, winning five of his six career starts over the track, with his only defeat being a troubled third-place finish in this year's Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).
Although the great Kelso captured five consecutive runnings of the Gold Cup, that was when the race was run at two miles.
Flat Out, owned by Preston Racing, joins Mad Hatter (1921-22), Dark Secret (1933-34), Nashua (1955-56), Shuvee (1970-71), Slew o'Gold (1983-84), Crème Fraiche (1986-87), Skip Away (1996-97) and Curlin (2007-08) as two-time Gold Cup winners.
"I think it's great a horse that can participate in it three times in a row," said Mott. "It's a testament to the horse's durability and class. He seems to handle the track well, which definitely is part of it. I also think there probably are a lot of factors that go into it, including that he comes into form at that time of year."
Then there is the match-up between 2013 classic winners Orb , winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice. A victory by either colt could very well clinch the 3-year-old championship, unless the loser or Travers (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) winner Will Take Charge wins the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Nov. 2.
In the older horse division, a victory by either Flat Out, winner of the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and Westchester Stakes (gr. III) this year, or Cross Traffic, winner of the Whitney Invitational (gr. I), could set them up for an Eclipse Award if they should go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Cross Traffic, who like Palace Malice is trained by Todd Pletcher, suffered heartbreaking defeats in photos this year in the Westchester and Met Mile in only his third and fourth career starts, respectively. The son of Unbridled's Song was made the 5-2 favorite and will break from the far outside in post 8 with John Velazquez aboard.
Another older horse to keep an eye on is the Chad Brown-trained Last Gunfighter, who has won seven of his past eight starts, including victories in the grade III Pimlico Special, Philip H. Iselin, and Excelsior stakes.
The remainder of the eight-horse field all boast impressive credentials as well. The Mott-trained Ron the Greek is trying to regain his form last year when he captured the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I).
Alpha, winner of last year's Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Jim Dandy (gr. I), found his form in his most recent start, defeating Flat Out by a head in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 31.
Finally, there is the Pletcher-trained Brazilian-bred 4-year-old Vitoria Olimpica, a grade I and grade II winner in Brazil who captured the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga in only his second start in the United States.
But most of the attention will be on 3-year-olds Orb and Palace Malice, who finished third and fourth, respectively in the Travers Stakes, and older horses Flat Out and Cross Traffic.
Many believe Palace Malice was the best horse in the Travers, breaking badly and falling well off the slow pace set by Moreno. The son of Curlin turned in a strong rally in the final furlong to be beaten three-quarters of a length by Will Take Charge and only a nose behind Orb. He returns to the scene of his Belmont Stakes victory and will break from post 7 under Mike Smith.
"I would say it's a very strong renewal," said Pletcher. "It's a tall order for everybody in there, really. Palace Malice's year started in January at Gulfstream and at the end of September he still seems to be doing great. If anything, I think he's improved with the time. He's a May foal and he seems to get better and stronger as we go along and seems to thrive on the action and the training in between. I've been very, very pleased with the way he's held up physically and mentally."
Some feel Orb has the most upside, finishing a strong third in the Travers despite not having run since the Belmont Stakes, after which he was sent to the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center to train before shipping up to Saratoga two weeks before the Travers.
"I think the Travers helped him," trainer Shug McGaughey said of the Stuart Janney and Phipps Family-owned son of Malibu Moon . "I thought he ran a very good race in the Travers and he came out of it very good. His works at Fair Hill have been exactly what we've wanted. I think we've got a fresh horse that's going in the right direction with a good, solid race under his belt."
Although Cross Traffic will be trying 1 1/4 miles for the first time, Pletcher does not seem concerned.
"At the end of the Westchester and the Met Mile, if you look past the wire he was back in front and still galloped out pretty strongly," PLetcher said. "That gave us confidence that going a mile and an eighth would be in his scope. We'll have to see about the mile and a quarter, but everything that he's shown us indicates that it shouldn't be a problem."
As for the TNT Stud-owned Vitoria Olimpica, Pletcher said, "I spoke to the connections and they have a lot of confidence in the horse from his form in South America, and we have confidence in the way that he's trained here and the way he ran in the Alydar, so it's more about taking a shot with a horse that seems to be doing really well."
"We hope to surprise again," McLaughlin said. "He loves Saratoga and does well up there, but in that particular race everything worked out perfectly. He did run huge. Obviously, in this race it would be hard to think everything would go perfectly again, but he is doing great and he belongs. Tough, tough race."
The one horse whose true ability still is to be determined in Last Gunfighter, who has not beaten horses of this caliber, but just keeps winning.
"He seems to be training great," Brown said. "It's a tall task, with such a solid field, and he's going to have to come with his best to even be a factor. But it's not out of the question for him to do that. He seems to bring his "A" game every time I run him. This will be his toughest task to date, by far."
$1 Million Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I, Race 10, app. Post time 5:49) 3YO & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1 Ron the Greek (FL), J Lezcano, 126, W I. Mott ,12-1
2 Orb (KY), J Castellano, 122, C R. McGaughey III, 9-2
3 Last Gunfighter (KY), R. Maragh, 126, C C. Brown,10-1
4 Vitoria Olimpica (BRZ), I Ortiz Jr., 126, T A. Pletcher 20-1
5 Alpha (KY), J Bravo, 126, K P. McLaughlin. 8-1
6 Flat Out (FL), J Alvarado, 126, W I. Mott, 3-1
7 Palace Malice (KY), M E. Smith, 122, T A. Pletcher, 4-1
8 Cross Traffic (KY), J R. Velazquez, 126, T A. Pletcher, 5-2